Interviews

15.10.18

Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2018

On 6 September, the biggest decision-makers of the north joined forces to celebrate and debate how to drive innovation and improvement through the region in the first-ever Convention of the North. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and one of the leading lights behind the partnership, sat down with PSE’s Jack Donnelly to discuss how devolution across the UK is progressing, and how it can impact the struggling finances of local councils up and down the country.

“This is the dawn of a new era, not just for this city region, but for politics in our country. It has been too London-centric for too long. The old political and party structures haven’t delivered for all people and for all places. Greater Manchester is going to take control. We will give power and purpose to those people and places that Westminster has left behind. We will get the voice of the north heard more loudly than ever before.”

This call to arms was from Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, shortly after a landslide victory in the regional leadership race in May last year. Since then, however, the lie of the land has changed rapidly: the founder and driving force behind the Northern Powerhouse concept, George Osborne, shifted his focus to become the editor of the London Evening Standard that very same month; a deal to create the long-awaited North of Tyne Combined Authority was finally agreed in April after a two-year delay; and the government has stood firm in its refusal of giving Yorkshire powers akin to a Greater Manchester-style combined authority.

To an outsider, progress on devolution would seem mixed. For every expansive deal granted to places like Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region, more and more fellow northern regions, such as Cheshire and Yorkshire, are put on the backburner by Whitehall. Nothing sums up the Conservatives’ stance of working with northern regions as much as The Guardian’s revelation in September that the government spent two years and £40,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to hide how little the then Northern Powerhouse minister James Wharton actually visited the north of England during his tenure. Is the slowing in momentum an issue with central government, or is it more complex than that?

“It’s certainly true, from a government level, that the departure of George Osborne has led to a cooling of the whole interest in the Northern Powerhouse,” stated Burnham. “Having created quite a powerful concept, it’s quite odd for the UK Government to be dropping it a couple of years later. They do still say it occasionally, and we have a Northern Powerhouse minister [Jake Berry] who is active. But it doesn’t feel as if the real belief or the real momentum is behind the whole idea at the moment; it just feels like it’s a bit lacking in energy from the government’s side.”

A shift of focus?

As Whitehall’s interest in the Northern Powerhouse waned, its passion in other parts of the country have flourished. Communities secretary James Brokenshire was named as the new ministerial champion to drive forward the government’s plans to fire up the Midlands Engine – the Northern Powerhouse’s devolution counterpart – raising concerns that the northern region as a whole, like some of the cities located there, could fall by the wayside.

“I don’t know where they’re up to with it all,” Andy told me. “What I do know is that they seem to talk endlessly about the Midlands Engine, and increasingly it would appear that things are being given to the West Midlands that are not being offered to us. We’re not against the Midlands doing well, but don’t promise the north all of this stuff and then all of a sudden switch focus to the Midlands. That kind of behaviour gives politics and politicians a bad name.

“If you make promises to people, honour those promises. Actually, I think a lot of people would recognise that the north of England, particularly when it comes to transport, should be at the front of the queue for investment.

“We’re at that moment where the government has turned down the volume on the Northern Powerhouse and turned up the volume on the Midlands Engine. I think what we need is turned-up volume on both, so that we really see a rebalancing of the country beginning to take effect.”

Against the status quo

If the past two years in politics are anything to go by, ignore the frustrations of your constituents at your own peril. The common theme between Britain’s shock departure from the European Union in 2016 and Donald Trump’s election in the USA the same year rested on the notion that ordinary people felt out of touch with modern politics and legislation, and voted for the radical change in a bid to take back control. During a ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution bid meeting in September, Leeds councillor Tom Leadley argued that Whitehall and Westminster must be terrified of One Yorkshire – so terrified that it could become “England’s Catalonia.” Does the Greater Manchester mayor agree?

Burnham said: “For me, the status quo is what we should be afraid of – we got a pretty big backlash to the status quo at the EU Referendum, and what I’ve always said is that the referendum result was as much an instruction to Westminster to reconsider its relationship with England as it was to reconsider its relationship with Europe. Clearly there were parts of the north that felt left behind by the current way of doing things.”

He added that if the government is to deny the call from Yorkshire and try to carry on with a very over-centralised and London-centric approach to governance, it will be “stirring up quite a big problem” in the long run, and therefore creating conditions for real resentment. So by backing devolution, Burnham points out, you will answer that kind of legitimate concern that people have that the north doesn’t get the same level of focus as other parts of the country.

Devolution deals granted by government are often accompanied by the requirement of a joined-up approach from the region that the power is being granted to. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which Andy leads as shot-caller, represents 10 localities that all work together and share resources in an integrated ecosystem. Yet more recently, local authorities around the UK are considering merging services in a bid to remove bureaucracy, simplify the system and, ultimately, make savings. Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, and Leicestershire county councils are all turning towards a joined-up, coordinated approach to delivering efficient services and saving millions of pounds in cash as they go along.

On the latter goal, Burnham commented: “The pressure is increasing, the budgets are going in the opposite direction, local government is not far at all away from that tipping point where it just cannot sustain what it does. In the coming Budget, and then next year in the Spending Review, we need to see a wholesale reassessment of how central government values local government.”

Does being a combined authority give the GMCA more clout over others councils? “I think it’s fair to say that, having made the case for devolution, we’ve been able to bring in more resources to the Greater Manchester level that is obviously helpful in relieving pressures on the councils – but it remains very difficult,” admitted Andy.

“I don’t want to run an argument here that says ‘we’re so much better than everybody else’ – we’re lucky in some ways in terms of the geography that we have, but I think times are incredibly tough for local government all over England, and I don’t think it can carry on like this. There will come a point where Greater Manchester can’t carry on like this.”

The solution, in Burnham’s mind, is putting the power back in the hands of locals. Having the ability to make progressive and powerful changes to your local environment – without the need to ask Whitehall’s permission first – can not only advance the local area as a whole, but it can prevent any future miscues from occurring as well.

“That’s what devolution can do: it can open up new thinking and new ways of doing things,” explained the mayor. “We feel that as more northern areas get devolution deals, the critical mass grows, and then we can all do more with each other and for each other. I think the proof is there already that you can get benefits individually but, as we all line up together, then there’s more we can do.”

The Convention of the North meeting in early September perfectly encapsulates Andy’s comments: with local government reaching tipping point financially, a holistic approach to providing society’s daily services will allow for greater cohesion and community, and ultimately lead to positive and happier lives for those who feel “left behind,” as Burnham referred to in his election victory speech. Despite the government digging its heels in over the devolution of powers for the northern regions, the grassroots passion for control will continue to grow ever stronger.

Top image: Dominic Lipinski, PA Images 

 

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   18/10/2018 at 07:44

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