Champion the North of England

The Devolution agenda looks almost dead in the water to the eagle-eyed journalist looking for the first hint of a Government U-turn on the once flagship Conservative Party policy. 6 months on from the metro-mayor elections the big tests of devolution look to be too hard for its students.

The Northern Powerhouse, once the standard bearer for a new, devolved relationship which will finally bring the capital investment and foreign investment the region so desperately needs, is just a name. Like a flash in the pan celebrity it is now resigned to the history books or to the occasional nostalgic op-ed. Infrastructure investment withdrawal was the last in a list of governmental disappointments.

In the dark, cold corners of the Northern Cities however, things may not seem all lost. Sure, political leadership may be dead in these bastions of ex-industry and trade, but then there was not much of it in the first place. 6 months of political leadership in the hands of a Mayor with devolved budgets and more responsibilities than ever before has left me feeling… nothing.

No mayor policy leads, no new initiatives and certainly nothing to score a single political point in either the town hall or Westminster. Not even my own Manchester, home of science and industry, symbol of human endeavour, birthplace of the alternative can champion devolution under its leader Andy Burnham. That maybe unfair – he did announce the “oyster card for Manchester”, which though promised during the election has failed to live up to billing.

Manchester is the poster-boy of devolution. Its combined authority doesn’t just accept the economic geography of the region, it champions it. The increasing service industry and investment has weathered the financial storm and come out the other side. Cranes and girders litter the skyline. In South Manchester house prices have recovered and booming.

The problem is – that was happening anyway. The poster-boy of the Northern Powerhouse continues regardless of hapless leadership from the Labour Party and inane interest from the Conservative Government. It is being led capably by business leaders and consortiums dedicated to drawing investment to the City.

The devolution agenda is vital in the next political decade. Only combined authorities will have the ability to address the growing housing crisis, shorten the gap between the living standards of the rich and poor, delivering community policing and address the gaping holes in our local NHS and mental health services.

The biggest issues facing you and your family in the regions will have its budget set in London but its decisions made locally. As devolution evolves with it will come the ability to work almost autonomously from London as powers to levy increase.

Leadership and scrutiny are the key to success. Liberal Democrats must lead the way in addressing the major issues facing the Northern Powerhouse. Firstly, we must champion the term, regional government needs the leadership and representation it deserves as budgets navigate Brexit and further cuts. Secondly the Liberal Democrats must pursue a policy agenda that meets the needs and aspirations of the people in our most deprived areas. Finally, we must ensure that our local government base is capable of scrutinising the lacklustre leadership.

In Manchester, only the Liberal Democrats offer an alternative to a hapless Labour Party. But to lead you must first oppose and to oppose you must win. We face 95 Labour Councillors to 1 Liberal Democrat in Manchester. We are busy putting that right.

* Richard Kilpatrick is the Chair of Campaigns for Manchester Withington Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrat Council Candidate for Didsbury West, Manchester City Council in May 2018.

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9 Comments

  • A wise and timely assessment by Richard Kilpatrick. As ‘ the party of devolution ‘ we often seem lethargic in engaging with it practically, and promoting how it can work for the benefit of regions and sub-regions.
    One wonders if our historic commitment to ‘localism’ has atrophied into a damaging form of parochialism. An unwillingness to see beyond ward or local party boundaries.
    ‘Tees Valley Lib Dems Forum’ was created to support our engagement with our Combined Authority and the new office of a directly elected Mayor.

    If the Lib Dems are to achieve real political relevance in local government we must embrace the essential changes taking place.

  • Maureen Rigg 25th Sep '17 - 9:33am

    Spot on Richard. Here in Tees Valley the Conservative mayor is also not offering any leadership, but businesses are showing the way forward. The democratic deficit is huge as a result. Thankfully, the one Liberal Democrat on the scrutiny committee keeps us informed, but we need a bigger voice after the 2019 elections here.

  • Gordon Lishman 25th Sep '17 - 10:56am

    I have been involved in arguments about devolution and regional industrial and economic development, particularly in the North West, for over 50 years? I agree that, logically, devolution should precede development because the point of devolution is to make development happen.

    However, that doesn’t seem to me the best political approach. We should start with the things we want to achieve and then, when that has sunk home, we should argue the case for devolution. Succinctly, it should be sold as a means not an end.

    The biggest case is that for economic, industrial, commercial, entrepreneurial development. It is entirely clear that the UK’s obsession with London and the South East puts the majority of the UK population in a poorer, less secure and more fragile position that all other large democracies and even some authoritarian states. the UK contains the richest and the eight poorest regions in the EU; the economic difference between richest and poorest regions of the UK is greater than that in the US and China (source: The Economist); etc. The overwhelming majority of other countries have federal, devolved or long-term decentralised structures with direct political power at regional level. The UK has never built a coherent political element into devolution and has suffered as a result (source: John Smith Institute Report). The Northern Powerhouse and metro mayors seem fated for the same degree of central government neglect leading to abolition that has characterised previous initiatives.

    Both the development argument and the people argument provide a strong case for effective investment in infrastructure. It will be better, longer-term and counter-cyclical if led regionally

    The role of the Manchester Mayor in overseeing health and social care spending is important – if it were to be sustained. I have no doubt that both funding and organisation issues would be dealt with much better if there were real devolution of control, including money-raising and spending. Currently, the NHS is a bureaucratic nightmare with little strategic, political control and random accountability.

    The case for devolution can go on and on in these terms. The crucial point is that it is part of the answer to a series of crucial political questions. It’s a means not an end.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Sep '17 - 11:17am

    I am a convinced devolutionist but still find it weird that, in England, whose internal borders have been highly fluid and pragmatically malleable for years, we continue to accept that people will ‘want’ or can be persuaded of the merits of democratic devolution where people have not been democratically involved in defining the borders of the areas to which power is to be devolved.

    That leaves devolutionists either with overlapping patchworks of bodies with differing potential constituencies (contrast metro-mayors / crime commmissioners / NHS trusts, for eg), trying to merge existing areas into incoherent ones (see also some of the metro-mayors), or trying to revive defunct historic areas (like Yorkshire).

    I know you’ll all hate it, but at some point, someone is going to have to ask people in England where they think they live.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Sep '17 - 2:02pm

    I agree with Matt. Devolution will only work when the people are continually involved, whether that is by petitions, referenda or a citizens assembly. Politicians too easily lose contact with reality and are too focused on the next set of elections. People power is what it is all about. What are they afraid of?

  • Richard Kilpatrick 25th Sep '17 - 5:01pm

    Thank you all for your contributions.

    Ian and Maureen – Tees Valley Region (which includes Darlington) is in a much better position than the North East LEP region. With one economic centre and port the understanding of the economic benefit and clear private sector enabling should be a strength of that region. It is a great shame that local politicians in that region will be a hamper to the devolution evolution of Tees Valley rather than champions of it. Speaking as someone who knows those politicians.

    As alway Gordon you speak sense on the subject and the North sweat is lucky to have you acting in its interest. I would say that Devolution was always meant to mission creep. The RDA was on the opposite of the spectrum too restrictive in its objectives that they became seen as central government tools rather than regional government.

    Matt and Peter – After studying this topic in depth across a number of regions I would have to disagree. Democracy is a requirement of the authority of the powers given at that level not a key pillar. People’s assemblies etc. will not create a link to this level of governance because there is no hunger for it. What will is effective governance scrutiny of regional governance which has economic progression as its main aim.

    The geography of these bodies need to make economic sense. This isn’t about self determination to the detriment of economic anablement. It is the economic leadership that these regions lack – not democracy. Business and investors could not care where the political boundaries lie. The sooner political parties and politicians realise that the better.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Sep '17 - 5:30pm

    Peter, Richard — I’m not entirely sure about ‘continual’ plebiscites, but neither am I sure about Richard’s dictum of the primacy of the businesses who drive economic success, with democratic accountability and scrutiny being secondary. I think you’re also ruling out the role of the human element in economics — are you saying that people’s perception of geographic identity has no bearing on the trading and economic links they build?

    And your post references NHS and mental health devolution, too — I don’t see why businesses should be necessarily allowed to dictate what formal NHS regions take. With respect of local government, what we are doing at the moment is eternally chopping up and patching back together a mess of wards and other boundaries that are still largely based on the 1974 review of county boundaries, with some 90s nobbling. With respect to NHS boundaries, the processes that have produced CCG and other health-authority ‘regions’ are even more random.

    Clearly, there needs to be compromise, in an process of defining what should be devolved to what level and why. But continually assuming that the humans who occupy the systems bureaucrats and quangos build should be treated as rats in a maze and not in any way meaningfully consulted at least on the shape of the maze, seems odd to me.

    And how can you say there is no appetite for something no-one has ever been offered?

  • Hmm, we can’t two Kilpatricks talking about devolution in the party. It’s a crowded space.

    Anyway, the difference between you and me, Richard, is that when I talk about devolution I don’t just bang on about my region (which happens to be the East of England). I talk about offering fair and significant devolution to all corners of the country from Cornwall to Berwick, Cardiff to Hunstanton, Oban to Margate.

    As for mayoral combined authorities, well, we now have a MCA for “Cambs plus Peterborough” but this conflicts with the extant two-tier County/District arrangement AND with the existence of the Greater Cambridge City Deal. We have a complete mess of incoherent government. Who can engage with this dog’s dinner? What’s more, the cherry-picking and first-come-first-served basis of current devolution is outright prejudiced against many rural areas or smaller towns ever getting a fair slice of the cake or being on a level playing field with the big metropolitan MCAs. I can’t think of anything more contrary to what our Liberal values should be.

    Rather than bigging up the Northern Powerhouse (and don’t get me wrong, I grew up in Sheffield and studied in Manchester) it would be so much better if you could direct your energy into a constituitional arrangment which would benefit us all, fairly, and result in the massive movement of powers down from Westminster to more regional and local authorities, to all of us without exception whether we are villagers or city folk.

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