Devolution and regional policy can help bring our country back together and tackle issues that caused Brexit - Paul Scriven

Political pressure is growing for Yorkshire devolution to be implemented.
Political pressure is growing for Yorkshire devolution to be implemented.

AS a vice president of the Local Government Association, this Queen’s Speech debate is taking place at a time of great strain for the fabric of the areas and regions of the United Kingdom.

I suggest that Brexit is a symptom, not the cause, of these strains.

Brexit is not to blame for Pacer trains, says Sheffield politician Lord Scirven of Hunters Bar.

Brexit is not to blame for Pacer trains, says Sheffield politician Lord Scirven of Hunters Bar.

It is not the European Union that causes some of us in parts of the United Kingdom to take Pacer trains that are more like garden sheds on wheels.

That has over many years created the imbalance in regional investment across the country – in fact, the EU has actually helped at times with regional funds.

That has seen a lack of investment in helping businesses equally in this country in terms of IT and other infrastructure.

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Lord Scriven of Hunters Bar has called for action on devolution.

Lord Scriven of Hunters Bar has called for action on devolution.

That has been responsible for lack of skills or focus on skills in certain parts of the country.

Or that has been responsible for the lack or imbalance of regional productivity across the country.

The cause of all this has been a lack of effective – or any – regional policy over the last 30 to 40 years, and governments of all colours have to take some responsibility for this.

When it comes to investment, life chances, life expectancy, job opportunities and a lack of hope, the real causes, as I have said, are the divided country, divided nations and divided regions.

If you want to “get on with it” and bring this country together, I suggest that we need to focus on devolution and regional policy.

If the Government was to spend a tenth of the time on this that it does on preparing for a no-deal Brexit, we could start to deal with the real causes of the divides and strains in our nation.​

Welcome as the Government’s lines on devolution in the Queen’s Speech are, they are scant on detail.

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Devolution is not a slogan such as ‘Northern Powerhouse’; it is not one person such as a metro mayor; it is not decentralisation from an out-of-date way of doing governance from a central Victorian Government.

It is a fundamental and systematic change of how our country is governed; where power lies and how power and responsibilities can be used – a much more federal model, pulling down the pillars of a bureaucratic, London-centric model.

It starts in London. Devolution never talks about what needs to change at the central level. It talks about how you give crumbs or parts of decentralisation from here down to the regions or areas, all of which are predetermined by Government.

We need to get away from this – the shadow and heavy hand of the Treasury, which blocks based on what it thinks is right from its economically London-centric view of what is needed for the regions, areas and countries of the UK.

We need to talk about a different way of governing centrally.

We need a Cabinet member for regional vibrancy and economic performance and a real ministry for devolution and economic policy, pulling in powers from different ministries so that they are not arguing in silos about who is responsible.

We must also do away with them being responsible to the Treasury. The Treasury stops and stalls.

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We need to start here, before we start talking about what I call “devolution by default”. Unless there is a national security or strategic reason for keeping them central, the models and powers of devolution should be decided by the area. It does not have to be a metro mayor or a pick-and-mix approach to what is needed on devolution. It should be down to each region.

Will Ministers therefore say what central changes will be made in government to make devolution work? Will we move away from a pick-and-mix model of devolution where you can pick and mix only certain things that have been predetermined 
by the centre, which would not bring around the true approach to dealing with this? What new funding models will be available for devolution?

Local taxation and finance-raising powers are needed. It should be down to local people to decide through the ballot box whether something is right or wrong, not someone at the dispatch box in Parliament to say that it is not in the interest of local regions.

If we are serious about bringing our country together and dealing with the strains and issues that have caused Brexit, we need a different and more devolved way and better regional and local policies to do so.

That has to start with a very different and radical approach to what we wish to do.

Lord Scriven of Hunters Bar is a Lib Dem peer. He spoke in a Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech – this is an edited version.