Ed Cox: Devolution for the North must go all the way

Have your say

THIS week has seen the economic case for devolution once again firmly on the agenda. On Monday, the Core Cities – the largest 10 outside of London, including Leeds and Sheffield – put their weight behind a “freedom charter” to wrest power away from Whitehall and shape their own destiny.

As a nation, it now feels we’ve grasped the case for economic devolution. But we’re still conflicted on the devolution of public services – the debate on democratic devolution is stuck at first base. Allow me to elaborate.

Even before the Scottish referendum, the case for economic devolution was already getting a fair hearing in Whitehall. Cities Minister, Greg Clark, was quick to show how far off the pace our second tier cities in England actually were and City Deals were the coalition Government’s first attempt to redress this balance.

The Core Cities themselves must take much credit for this turnaround, for consistently making the case for the size and clout of their combined economies and using good quality evidence and practical policy solutions to pave a way for political progress.

As Monday’s event in Glasgow testifies, if the devolution genie is out of the lamp, it is currently to be found living in the offices of the Core Cities Group and at the Core Cities Cabinet table. But the event wasn’t all back-slapping and self-congratulation. There was an undercurrent throughout the day that the powers to unleash their economic potential were only part of the equation.

If the economic case for city devolution has been won, the public services case has not. Listening to Department of Work and Pensions officials at a seminar on welfare devolution earlier this week, I realised once again that for them devolution is a “project” to be very carefully managed – avoiding risk, controlling spending – in short, not letting go.

And yet as the cities will consistently tell us, the devolution of economic powers and the devolution of public services are two sides of the same coin. Growth and public service reform, working hand in hand, is the only way to fix our fiscal crisis.

If cities like Leeds and Sheffield are spending more per annum on all the things that promote dependency and ill-health and contributing less to the Exchequer by not doing the right things like creating jobs and raising productivity, the structural deficit is never going to heal.

While the case for welfare devolution and public service reform may be being won in Scotland, in England it is barely out of the starting blocks. And it doesn’t take a genius to see how Scotland has achieved this: through people power.

With the promise of a referendum on the very future of the Union, democracy in Scotland came alive. And even though the end result was a close-run thing – there was one clear and resounding message that the people of Scotland cried out for all to hear: enough of Westminster politics, we want to run things closer to home. The subsequent surge in support for the SNP made that message all the more clear.

Let’s be clear. Despite David Cameron’s promise the day after the Scottish referendum, devolution in England is not proceeding in tandem with that of Scotland at anything like the scale or scope or pace required. But more significantly, there is a growing groundswell of opinion – not least in the north of England – which looks to Scotland with all its anger at the Westminster system and its newly-found democratic vibrancy and says: we want some of that too.

And this spirit is finding some new political voices too. We now have new regionalist parties in the North: Yorkshire First, founded by former Labour and Lib Dem protagonists, secured over 19,000 votes at the European elections last year after little more than six weeks of low-key campaigning. Without any formal platform – other than its demand for an elected assembly for Yorkshire – it points towards a new type of decentralised politics. And then there’s the North East Party and the Campaign for the North too.

What is interesting about these new political voices in the North is that they have a number of things in common: they have a clear vision which is bold and confident about the future; secondly, they play up to a sense of regional identity; and thirdly, they seek to avoid any labelling 
as left-wing or right-wing – in fact they might all be characterised 
as modelling themselves against 
the party machines that constitute the mainstream political system.

It is only a matter of time before these new voices turn a debate about economic decentralisation into a debate about democratic devolution to the north of England in its entirety. The so-called “Manchester Model” may be good for some but if we allow it to become the only game in town then wider devolution will come unstuck.

Beyond this, there is also a risk of “cities groupthink”. These are not arguments against city devolution. But they are arguments that should caution us about too narrow a focus for our devolutionary plans.

Devolution should not to stop at reviving our economies: it should renew the services we value and rely on and fire up our democracy too.

• Ed Cox is director of IPPR North, a dedicated policy think-tank for the north of England.