Austin Mitchell: Bridging the divide of ‘Northern Madhouse’

The Humber Bridge has become a symbol of the region's devolution divide.
The Humber Bridge has become a symbol of the region's devolution divide.
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AS a strong believer in passing power down from London, it’s depressing to see both the Government and our local authorities turning a great – and necessary – idea into a gigantic Horlicks.

At the present rate of what I can’t call progress, we’ll end up with a Northern Powerhouse on one side of the Pennines – but a Northern Madhouse on the civilised side.

Much of the mess has arisen because the Government’s plans were half-baked in the first place. George Osborne looks to have taken up devolution as yet another of the tricks he loves playing to discomfort Labour by stealing their clothes. As a result, it has not been thought through.

Government insists that every devolved area must have mayors but some areas don’t want mayors and others have already voted to reject one.

Government also hasn’t based its devolved units on any consistent principles: big cities, planning regions, local DIY or groupings of smaller centres irrespective of whether or not they’ve got anything in common.

The result will be a patchwork quilt of sizes and powers in which some smaller centres will be missed out altogether while the rest are a mix of little and large (but less funny). Some will be big enough to take on major devolved functions. Others won’t.

There isn’t even a common pattern on what these functions will be.

This Government has been busily centralising other functions like education, but now that it wants to transfer functions like health and social care (or at least the blame for their rising costs) the other way, it hasn’t made it clear what it will devolve from London, who gets what or how it will be financed by a central Government which has never been over generous to town halls.

This is a vital point because the council tax is regressive, inflexible and inadequate, but financing by Government grants means control by Whitehall. There can be no real devolution without financial and tax power to go with it.

As a final touch of chaos, they’ve left it to the regions to define themselves. That makes an explosion of antagonisms and rivalries.

The mess is already happening right here in our Broad Acres. Some want a whole of Yorkshire authority. Neither Leeds nor Sheffield will agree to that because they want their own city regions, though there are still disputes about what those regions include.

One thing is certain: Neither seems to want to include Hull. Yet, rather than making Humberside a city region of its own, Hull refuses to associate with Northern Lincolnshire for reasons which are obscure to me.

The South Bank’s two authorities, North and North East Lincolnshire, are knocking on the Hull door but Stephen Brady – the leader of Hull Council –– seems determined to keep it closed, as if they’re too rough to be mates with the 2017 City of Culture. Yet we all share the same police force, the same LEP, a common port authority and the same Chamber of Commerce, all of which will be split if Hull goes it on its own. What was the Humber Bridge about if it wasn’t to get the two sides together?

Perhaps the High Stewards of the two authorities could organise peace talks? Even without that, it is clear that the economic interests of Grimsby and Scunthorpe lie to the west as Yorkshire’s gateway to the world.

Yet both are being forced to accept the Brady dictat and become part of a proposed Greater Lincolnshire. This links them to a sprawling agricultural area though the two industrial areas now have little in common with the aristocratic acres to the south, except a belief that they’re all “yellow bellies”. That’s a proud identity but one which young people who’ve grown up under Humberside are less inclined to feel.

The split could mean that the hopes of developing the Humber as Britain’s energy estuary with manufacturing in Hull, suppliers on ABLE UK’s new development on the South Bank and maintenance and service done from Grimsby docks are undermined. It’s going to be more difficult to sell the alternative energy estuary in competition with other ports, north and south, who’re now competing to take the crown.

Manchester had none of these difficulties because local authority leaders prepared the ground for a Greater Manchester authority by bringing surrounding towns together. They sold and prepared the idea before George Osborne awoke to its potential. He may have done so as a means of devolving blame for the coming cuts or of re-energising local government. Both may be necessary, though the new trend revives an idea which the Conservative Party has opposed for the last 30 years.

Now, with Osborne’s change of heart, it’s been chucked at us out of the blue, and unlike the other side of the Pennines, little of the necessary preparatory work has been done in Yorkshire. Devolution of real power is necessary in this over centralised country. Too much is concentrated on London. As councils are deprived of any useful role, the quality of councillors willing to take on what’s becoming an exercise in impotence is declining.

We can only get by with clear thought and careful planning, not by Osborne-style improvisation. The Chancellor can’t be left to make things up as he goes along.

First we must decide on what basis to devolve power to and what powers should be devolved. Should we create city regions as described in Derek Senior’s memorandum of dissent from the report of the Royal Commission on local government in 1969? Should the base be the Heath government’s counties like South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire? Or should we use the planning regions? How many and what functions can be handed down? Most important of all, how are they to be financed?

Council tax can’t bear the present structures let alone new roles, but to finance the new structures on central Government grants merely tightens London’s control strings. So, should there be a new regional property tax, or a purchase tax, or what?

Until we get all this made clear, George Osborne’s brainchild is in danger of proving a more half baked reform than John Prescott’s earlier efforts. Local government has been too badly messed about over the last three decades to be pushed into yet another farce.

Austin Mitchell is the former Labour MP for Grimsby.