The Liberal Democrats must own the Northern Powerhouse 

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I was delighted to chair Liberal Reform’s panel discussion at Spring Conference with Wera Hobhouse MP, Laura Gordon (PPC for Sheffield Hallam) and Stephen Smith (Transport for the North). The debate explored the opportunities, threats and politics surrounding the Northern Powerhouse agenda and how the Liberal Democrats should take on the challenge of owning the agenda going forward.

The statistics speak for themselves: as a region, the North has an economic worth of around £304bn and would be the 10th largest economy in Europe if it were a single city. However, the region is grossly underperforming and whilst the initial objectives of the Northern Powerhouse agenda was to rebalance the UK economy, since Theresa May’s election as Prime Minister the Conservatives seemed to have cooled on this subject.

Elsewhere, Labour is nowhere. Calling the Northern Powerhouse a “toxic brand”, Labour’s devolution spokesperson Jim McMahon has offered very little on how the North can grow.

It was only last week that Ed Cox resigned as the Director of the IPPR North and stated that, “neither of the mainstream Westminster parties have properly grasped the critical importance of devolution in unlocking the nation’s potential and their own attempts to govern”.

It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are the only party with the know-how to deliver true economic growth and devolution to the North.

In Government, the Liberal Democrats were the architects of localism. Our fingerprints are all over the devolution deals that were struck with Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Tees Valley and it was Vince Cable who made business rates more localised.

At the end of the fringe, the challenge was set – quite literally by Baroness Pinnock who demanded that people start writing ideas down for a policy paper – the Liberal Democrats are clearly the party best placed to deliver a successful Northern Powerhouse, but they must find a radical way forward to win the doubters over.

Both Wera Hobhouse and Laura Gordon agreed that leading the Northern Powerhouse would build a platform for winning back seats in the North.

But how do we do it? Personally, I think nothing should be off the table. We need to look at how business rates are being used and invested, how universities and other education providers are training a business-relevant workforce for the region, how we are providing sustainable and accessible housing for people to live in, how our transport system is helping commuters and freight to drive economic activity, how our energy and water providers are ready to cope with the demands of growth, and how we can utilise automation and digital advancements to drive efficiency and create better work/life balances.

If you have any ideas or want to get involved in creating a Northern Powerhouse policy, contact Liberal Reform on [email protected].

* Tom Morrison is a member of Cheadle Liberal Democrats, a Board Member of Liberal Reform and blogs at www.tommorrison.org.uk.

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28 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 21st Mar '18 - 11:20am

    Devolution to whom? to paraphrase Benn.

  • Yorkshire region has settled policy on this: we want a parliament for Yorkshire in York. We have the same GDP and population as Scotland and we should get the same devolution settlement. We won’t brook being ruled from Manchester, as a “parliament for the north” would inevitably end up being.

    Sadly, this policy appears to be incompatible with that of North West (who went for the “parliament for the north” idea), and the Sheffield lib dems who were outvoted at regional conference because they want to hive Sheffield city region off as a seperate entity to be ruled over by labour for all eternity, god knows why.

    Basically, Tom, I wish you luck with this, but the day you’ll get us all to agree on it is the day hell freezes over, and that’s how London keeps shafting us.

  • Tom Morrison 21st Mar '18 - 11:46am

    Jennie, I know where you’re coming from, but your last point really hits it home – London will always out do the North whilst the Northern Regions compete with each other.

    It’d be good to get your insight on this, so please get in touch via the email address if you’d like to be involved in finding a way forward.

  • There are regions in the north that want to shift more towards services and there are other regions that want to go all in on manufacturing. The only way to keep us happy here would be to give us almost full decision making powers, so that’s either devo-max or a regional parliament. The problem with devo-max (thinking of a North West assembly) is that it suffers from low turnout rates, not as bad as council elections, but still quite poor. Regional English parliaments is the only solution I can think of that’d force us to stop looking towards Westminster for a small ray of hope. PR + English parliaments (maybe look at the EU NUTS system as a start?) would be a good discussion to have at the top level of the party.

  • John Marriott 21st Mar '18 - 12:06pm

    “It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are the only party with the know-how to deliver true economic growth and devolution to the North.” Who are you kidding, Mr Morrison and from where does this “know-how” derive? How many councils do the Lib Dems currently control, anywhere – and I don’t mean Town/Parish Councils? Or how many do they have a hand in controlling currently?

    You can discuss and pass motions at conferences until the cows come home; but, believe me, there is absolutely NO substitute for actually having a hand on the tiller. Experience beats theory every time and there appears to be precious little of that around for the Lib Dems at the moment.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Mar '18 - 1:05pm

    Labour are not the issue here, to answer the points raised, consistency might not be uniformity, London is a huge city and has a government thus. Scotland is a country, Yorkshire is not. Wales is a country, the north is not.

    The US as with most things to do with democracy, except the involvement of money, get all this just right, governors, mayors, legislatures, councils, harmony!

    Why not an Assembly, for Yorkshire and for each region, rather than a parliament, and a parliament , in Wales not an Assembly?!

  • William Fowler 21st Mar '18 - 1:13pm

    We already have two sets of MPs from Scotland and Wales, the idea that what the country needs is yet another layer of overpaid politicians is not one that will win many votes, most people want politicians and their endless, usually pointless laws (that in their excess bring serious laws into disrepute) out of their lives as much as possible. By all means use tax incentives to make certain areas attractive, usually the market – if left alone – will catch up with things (ie low rents/rates and cheap housing).

  • @Lorenzo

    The idea would be to streamline the system so we’d no longer be electing 2 sets of MPs – 1 for the Assembly and 1 for Westminster, but rather just 1 set; London MPs would be elected to Westminster, North West MPs would be elected to a North West parliament, North East MPs would be elected to a North East parliament etc. Defence and foreign policy matters would be taken at the highest federal level, and almost everything else would be handled at the region level.

  • Oh, dear. here we go again. John Marriott is completely right.

    The post from Mr Morrison is flawed from the start by including a statutory Lib Dem dig at the Labour Party – distorting a speech by Jim McMahon and making inflated claims about Lib Dems ‘owning the Northern Powerhouse’ (presumably aided by the MP for Bath – a tad away from Huddersfield, Mr Morrison).

    People should actually read the speech by Mr McMahon (an outstanding leader of Oldham Council before entering Westminster). It’s a powerful critique of Osborne’s posturing. Mr Morrison should approach Mr McMahon and endeavour to work with him instead of building Lib Dem imaginary castles in the air if he wants the party to be taken seriously again….. and he can forget about a Manchester Parliament running the North – that’s not Localism it’s Mancunian Imperialism.

    @ Jenny Beat you to it. I made speeches advocating a Yorkshire Parliament when I was Liberal PPC for Sowerby in the late sixties (its in the Hebden Bridge Times archives). We still had Liberal voters and supporters then….. an effective MP next door in Richard Wainwright – and we were radical, focussing on bread and butter economic issues that mattered to the electorate.

  • @ Jennie sorry, Jennie lass.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Mar '18 - 3:20pm

    All this is a load of hot air, I am afraid. As for the devolution deals they are just a sop. And as Bill le Breton says – devolution to who? Some of the big cities are doing a bit better, the rest of the North is a backwater and will remain so. As for the “Northern Powerhouse” that is a shallow slogan and will never be anything else.

  • Christopher Clayton 21st Mar '18 - 3:41pm

    While I detest the abuse of language that is evident in stating that any political party should “own” the silly ad-man/con-man phrase “Northern powerhouse” – which, nevertheless, conveys very well the self-aggrandising vacuousness of its author – I’m also not so keen on the kind of “Yorkshire first” sentiments expressed in some of these posts. Northern England – the southern borders of which will not be straightforward to define- has not had a fair deal in the over-centralised governmental structure that envisages England as a unit in which population density and growth skew the balance of representation inordinately to the interests of London and the south east (-it’s not just the “north ” that suffers an injustice!) and it might be necessary to rectify that imbalance by means of an effective form of representative and tax-spending authority for the whole of the north, not just regions within it, which does not entail extra tax contribution. That must mean taking power away from the national parliament and central government and developing a more federal structure along the lines of the German model. That involves a head-on confrontation with the whole concept of unitary sovereignty, a concept which is likely to be fortified by the consequences of “Brexit” – another reason why Brexit looks like being harmful and why it is not realistic to separate it and its consequences from the so-called “bread and butter” issues.
    Regarding David Raw’s comment about Mr J. McMahon MP’s statement on this, I have not read what he said and I agree that statements should not be judged simply by their source. But I wonder if Mr Raw could point out in detail the way the people of Oldham Local Authority and, in particular, those living in the wards that resisted the temptation to elect Labour councillor acolytes, by instead electing Liberal Democrats and even Conservatives, benefited from Mr McMahon’s alleged quality of being an “outstanding leader” before he decided to give up this great work and take up the larger salary of an MP in a Labour “safe” seat?

  • John Marriott 21st Mar '18 - 4:33pm

    @William Fowler
    What the Union needs is the same number of layers for each of its four nations. The basic structure is already in place in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland but NOT in England. So in what is by far the largest chunk of the UK in terms of population, the first thing you need to sort out is local government. That means getting rid of the remaining County and District Councils and replacing them with Unitary Authorities, with Town/Parish/Neighbourhood Councils (whatever you would like to call them) below that.

    There are those who advocate an ‘English Parliament’. This would be as remote from many parts of England as the current Westminster model. No, we need to create around six Regional Assemblies, the equivalent each of the Scottish Parliament and, with appropriate upgrades, the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. The obvious geographic designation of these assemblies would be: Northwest England, Northeast England, West Midlands, East Midlands, Southwest England and Southeast England (there might even be a case for an East Anglia region). And where do you draw the boundaries? Now, that’s where the fun really begins – which is really where the current argument ‘up north’ arises!

    With this structure in place, all competences except for Defence of the Realm, Overseas Trade and Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Economic Development could be devolved, which would leave the Federal Parliament in Westminster to deal with these matters.

    Does this set up remind you of anywhere? Well, I reckon that might be similar to how countries like Germany, Canada and Australia are organised. Yes, Mr Fowler, we might be adding an extra tier; but we might just be transforming this little old country of ours into a modern and truly democratic 21st century state, properly equipped to face the real challenges of the future. Is THAT radical enough?

  • Christopher Clayton 21st Mar '18 - 4:37pm

    Just to be clear (before anyone gets the wrong impression, I hope) I was referring in the previous commnet to the author (Osborne) of the phrase “northern powerhouse” in stating that it was a phrase denoting self-aggrandising vacuousness, NOT Mr Morrison. Also I hope nobody thinks the Yorkshire first comment was suggesting that those keen on a Yorkshire parliament were in any way like Mr Trump. Apologies if there were any lack of clarity there.

  • Once, not so long ago, we wre a bit of a Power House of the North, loads or councillors and represenatives, remember Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle etc etc. They are no longer because of our own actions in Coalition. Nobody else to blame but ourselves. It is going to take a decade or two to rebuild. Perhaps a new party………….
    We can dream but it is all a Wonderland, the reality is here and now and in my respectful opinion needs to be accepted, undertstood and dealt with first. To even have a house let alone a power house would be helpful.

  • The devolved structure for England is already in place with the Metro Mayor’s and combined local authority areas for London, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West of England, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley Combined Authority, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority

    England’s regional and city-wide Mayor’s all agree upon the need for the Government to significantly increase the pace and scale of devolution in order to boost economic growth in Britain and to improve public services.

    As the party of devolution, we need to support their call and our policy should be focused on giving them the legislative powers they need to do the job.

  • David: you’re forgiven, lad xx

  • While I sympathise with Tom for being a tad over brave in his optimism with this idea, his post underlines the real problem at the heart of the Lib Dems at the moment. Most of the posters here have been there, done it and earned the right to wear the T shirt many times over, and know just how hard it is to make progress against the entrenched and intransigent establishment parties.

    People like Bill, John, David and Tony have fought for Liberal ideals throughout their entire lives. They had and have exactly the same ideals as the newbies, but they learned long ago, that it is so much harder than you can ever imagine to break the grip Labour and Conservatives have on this country’s body politic and they learned that to succeed they had to temper what they were doing with a practical edge of what is achievable. The alternative was to succumb to what happened to many other idealists of their generation – to burn out and fail completely.

    People like Jennie and others came along slightly later, but are well aware of how hard it really is and have learned from the experience of their older liberal friends. They in their turn added to our party’s successes.

    Ambitions like revitalising the North, or even more liberally, revitalising all the areas and people deliberately left behind by both Labour and Conservative parties over the last few decades, is a very laudable aim, and over the years we built a fighting force that was powerful enough to rock the Conservatives and Labour, even in their heartlands, to do this, exposing the incompetence and petty corruption and on occasions rampant corruption of those two parties.

    However just as that ambition was getting close to becoming a real threat to them, it was all sacrificed in a trice of naive over optimism in coalition, which put us back thirty or forty years.

    Now we have to rebuild again, utilising the enthusiasm and idealism of today’s young newbies, and the hard learned experience of the older generation. The alternative is to wait for the new gen to make the mistakes for themselves and sacrifice another two generations to the old parties and the politics of division and despair.

    Brexit is now only a year away, and for all our ideals and values, we are making no headway in turning things around. We all have to learn to change, and learn fast.

  • Joe B, Of course what you have to realise is that all the city mayors are united in wanting more money for cities. The problem is the rural areas whose citizens already pay more for worse services. If the cities are indeed united it is in self interest, not Liberal concern for the less well off.

  • David Evans,

    I was at a meeting of the APPG on Land Value Capture at Westminster today where the Mayor of Cambridge and Peterborough and the Director of Infrastructure for West of England were making this point. They emphasised the need for locally tailored solutions for their regions that combine large rural areas and urban centre’s. Solutions that will differ from those applied in London, Manchester, Liverpool or Teesside.
    What Mayor’s and heads of combined authorities are calling for is more local autonomy and less centralisation of one size fits all policies conjured up in Whitehall.

  • David Evans 22nd Mar '18 - 9:34am

    Joe B, I think you have missed my point. I am sure that mayors of combined rural and urban areas like Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England combined authorities know and will be aware of the issues I mentioned. However, they are not the powerhouse that is driving this, nor the problem. If you listen to to any of the City mayors you will quickly realise that their sole interest is in their City and any alliances with other cities that will further enhance them all, especially in financial terms. In the North West for example, I doubt if Andy Burnham or Andy Rotherham have said little of consequence about rural areas in Lancashire and Cheshire and even less about Cumbria.

    Indeed in Merseyside it is already considered that the Liverpool City Region is already much too Liverpool centric and that was the reason St Helens was chosen as the first of the region’s Borough of Culture, with the princely budget of £200,000.

    I think you will find that what Mayor’s and heads of combined authorities are calling for is “more local autonomy and less centralisation of one size fits all policies to benefit their areas”, not for a liberal more local autonomy and less centralisation to benefit all areas and to deal with the already existing over emphasis of more resources for cities.

  • Gordon Lishman 22nd Mar '18 - 12:21pm

    Interesting, but unsurprising that this thread has defaulted from being about economic development to discussion of government structures. I’m strongly in favour of devolution and what go as far as Kath Pinnock in preferring a system in which the sub-national structure devolves powers both up and down (indeed we are arguing for that and a much more sensible overall approach than current policy on the FPC’s current Working Party), but that isn’t the same as what we should be doing about current discussions on economics and infrastructure.
    As with other initiatives about economic development (e.g. at ippr, the RSA, and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”), it’s a bit lonely being a LibDem at Northern Powerhouse Partnership events. The Partnership has substantial business backing, has produced coherent thinking about investment and education and has persuaded Philip Hammond to some support. Transport for the North has similarly been influential in putting a clear, strong case for investment in transport infrastructure.
    Of course, we need to have big policy on devolution in the background, but we need also to be engaging with the people who are coming together to plan and lobby for coherent investment – not least because it will inform both Parliamentarians and policy-makers.
    This is just one example of how our inward-looking policy machinery is failing to engage in debates NOW about big ideas that should be integrated into Party activity.
    And, by the way, it’s also important that we plan coherently in terms of infrastructure and investment for the areas (many of which are urban) which are outside the current “devolution deals”.

  • John Marriott 22nd Mar '18 - 3:07pm

    Developments in so called ‘devolution’ in England have so far centred around the concept of the ‘City Mayor’. Why always this emphasis on an individual to turn things round? We had it with the various ‘Czars’ as well as the PCCs (and I don’t mean Parochial Church Councils), not forgetting ‘Superheads’. The idea of govrrnment by committee or even cabinet appears to be going out the window.

    They tried it a couple of years ago in Lincolnshire, insisting on an elected a Mayor, a crazy idea in largely rural area like ours. It was rejected, when two of the ten councils involved chickened out. although I could have lived with it as it opened the door to more meaningful Devolution in the future. So we appear to be back to square one while our fellow citizens in the larger conurbations appear to be forging ahead. So much for equality.

  • @JoeB & David Evans – Re: balancing rural and urban needs and city-centric thinking.

    Northamptonshire is about to go through an enforced transformation from the traditional County Council and District/Borough Council structure to two unitary authorities(*). What will be interesting is whether we see a continuation of the informed thinking already exhibited (eg. Putting Daventry and Northampton together directly addresses the issues arising from Daventry locating much of it’s expansion on the outskirts of Northampton) about where these new authorities should have their offices.

    (*) Aside: It is interesting to note that because NCC messed up, the District/Borough Councils, who did much to raise the alarm over irregularities at NCC, will all get disbanded; all of which will happen without a public vote on the matter…

  • John Marriott 22nd Mar '18 - 4:10pm

    @Roland
    Nobody would deny that District/Borough Councils can do an excellent job, but their powers are severely limited. Difficult times call for radical solutions, and these councils, which, together with County Councils, were largely the creation of the 1972 Local Government Act, are in the firing line for abolition.

    It is easy to get parochial when it comes to local politics. The problem is that it is quite often local councillors who are beating the drum; but not the general public, whose interest in such matters is at best cursory and usually involves the level of Council Tax bills. Most people have little idea what each council does. It’s usually just “the b****y Council”, full of self seeking propagandists, who couldn’t, according to many self appointed experts on social media, organise the proverbial knees-up in a brewery.

    IF local government is to have any meaningful role in future (and devolving powers from Westminster to the regions is NOT enough) it has got to wise up and out its own house in order. Mind you, the same thing applies to that shower in Westminster as well!

  • I think Gordon Lishman makes a fair point about the need to focus on economic development.

    Andy Burnham’s office are exploring Land Value Capture in principle terms as they develop a new transport funding model that allows the scale of investment required to deliver much needed new transport infrastructure, as set out in our 2040Transport Strategy for Greater Manchester https://www.tfgm.com/2040.

    Liberal Democrats are not going to own the Northern Powerhouse, but we should have plenty to say about how Land Value Capture can fund the largest transport investment project outside of London and what Andy Burnham calls the cross rail of the North.

  • David Raw/Jennie,

    on a side note: ALTER https://libdemsalter.org.uk/en/ has members that act as regional representatives for Scotland, Wales and every English region with the notable exception of Yorkshire.

    I would hate to see Yorkshire being left out of involvement in policy development in this area. If you know of activists with an interest in the economics of Land Value Capture, do please ask them to make contact https://libdemsalter.org.uk/en/contact

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Mar '18 - 1:12pm

    In terms of boosting the north, from a West Cumbria perspective, I see no point in big new regional authorities or assemblies. I think we should work with what we have got, as with Gordon Lishman’s involvement with the Northern Power Partnership, or Transport for the North. If the new City Mayors can be persuaded, as apparently the Mayor of Greater Manchester has been, Joe Bourke tells us, to consider Land Value Capture as a means of funding large infrastructure developments, well and good, let us work on all of them to promote that excellent Liberal Democrat policy for the sake of development in their regions.

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