Yorkshire devolution bid can 'learn the lessons from regional assemblies' failure in 2004'

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It may not go down as his most notable achievement but more than a decade before he masterminded the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, Dominic Cummings was focused on matters rather closer to home.

The Durham-born strategist led the campaign against then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's plan for regional assemblies in 2004 with notable success, persuading voters to reject the idea by 696,519 votes to 197,310.

Arianna Giovannini, Interim Director at IPPR North. Pic: Tony Johnson

Arianna Giovannini, Interim Director at IPPR North. Pic: Tony Johnson

The overwhelmingly negative vote was seen as an insurmountable obstacle to elected regional assemblies elsewhere in England, including Yorkshire and the Humber.

And for Arianna Giovannini, an Italian academic who came to the UK a few years later to write her dissertation and study devolution, the saga was just another example of the ongoing failure of northern England to match the devolution process in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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Arianna Giovannini, Interim Director at IPPR North. Pic: Tony Johnson

Arianna Giovannini, Interim Director at IPPR North. Pic: Tony Johnson

Moving to Yorkshire in 2008, she was awarded a PhD in Political Sociology from Leeds Beckett University in 2014 for her doctoral thesis analysing England's exclusion from the devolution process started by New Labour in 1997, specifically the 2004 referendum.

After holding a number of academic positions around the region, at universities in Huddersfield, Sheffield and Leeds, she now combines a role at De Montfort University in Leicester with leading IPPR North, the region's only dedicated think-tank.

And in a year where attention will turn to the Prime Minister's promises to "level up" the country by handing powers to metro mayors in Yorkshire and across the North, Dr Giovannini says the failed attempt in 2004 is still relevant today.

After interviewing MPs, local politicians and campaigners across the North, she concludes that part of the reason for regional assemblies failing to win popular approval is that they did not have enough powers to make a difference in people's lives.

While John Prescott was vocal about returning powers to local leaders, she believes Tony Blair was less interested in the cause, meaning the Deputy Prime Minister's demands for the regional assemblies were gradually chipped away to a point that they would make little difference.

This left the idea vulnerable to accusations of being just another expensive layer of bureaucracy with money better spent on the NHS, an argument later used by good effect by Mr Cummings in 2016.

Reflecting on the campaign, Dr Giovannini says: "It was organised in just a couple of weeks but it sent a very powerful message.

"What you hear today, based on that experience, is that regional assemblies won’t work because people in the North East voted against them the 2000s – but I think we need to understand why", she says.

"The lack of powers is the first point, if you want a set of new devolved institutions and you want people to back them then you have to give them the powers and funding that would allow them to do things that can affect people in their every day lives. That wasn't the case back then.

"Another issue was that identity was taken for granted, there was an assumption that because there is a regional identity in the North East people would just vote for a regional assembly. It does not quite work that way. You have to mobilise identity. Which is something we are perhaps seeing more in Yorkshire today."

Now living in Sheffield, she says her time at Leeds Beckett's now-defunct institute for northern studies was "a really good experience to understand the culture and identity of the North".

"One of the main reasons why the North stands out within England is because there is that sense of belonging, of community, of identity that you don't find in other places, perhaps with the exception of Cornwall."

She had the opportunity to take over as interim director of IPPR North in July when previous incumbent Sarah Longlands went on maternity leave. Though her role ends next month, she says: "It has been an incredible experience, what a time to lead the only think-tank dedicated for the North of England."

The role of IPPR North is particularly timely in a year when Boris Johnson will seek to firm up his support among former Labour voters in the North by handing powers to metro mayors in the form of devolution deals.

Though Yorkshire is yet to have a fully-implemented deal, making it the hole in the Northern Powerhouse, deals are expected to be struck between the Government and local leaders in the early months of 2020.

"I think it is the moment now, especially because quite a bit of the new government’s majority comes from the North of England", says Dr Giovannini, reflecting on the gains made by the Tories in former Labour heartlands like Wakefield and Don Valley.

"We are talking about areas that have been held back for years by austerity and neglect. Areas that are experiencing huge inequalities in terms of job opportunities, productivity, transport investment, health

"There has been a shift in allegiances because communities feel left behind – so they voted for change”.

"But I think those votes are on loan. The Conservatives have been in power for a long time, they started the Northern Powerhouse agenda with the aim of bridging regional inequalities. That is a very important agenda but it has had ups and down, and to be completely honest it has not delivered in full so far.

"We really need to see the government taking the Northern Powerhouse to the next stage, so it becomes a project of the North, by the North and for the North. At IPPR North our research shows that is crucial for the Government to invest in the North – in transport infrastructure, but also skills, education, health and social care. But you also need real powers and funding devolved to northern leaders. If you don't do that you only do half the job."

Dr Giovannini only has to look to her home town of Rimini on Italy's eastern coast as an example of the successes of an empowered local level.

She says a powerful mayor and local council have helped redevelop the city by focusing on local pride, taking advantage of the prestige generated by its most famous son, film director Federico Fellini.

This success can be an example to Yorkshire and show how local government could make a real difference, if funded properly.

"Local pride is very strong, you can see that everywhere across Yorkshire. If you could match the local pride with real devolved power and a strong local government that can deliver for the people, that would be a good way of rebuilding the trust in politics that we have seen start to fade away – starting from the bottom up."