A packed conference of leading regional politicians, business groups and trade unions has called for the UK government to make regional devolution an immediate and top priority for the year ahead, reports Rob O'Connor from Newcastle.
The State of the North conference in Newcastle today (Wednesday 22 January), led by influential think-tank IPPR North, saw almost 300 delegates agree that 2020 must be the year when power is returned to the north and all its regions, towns and cities.
The conference followed a hard-hitting report by the IPPR that found:
- 2019 had exposed the country’s regional divides more than ever;
- The UK is more regionally divided than any comparable advanced economy;
- Centralised governance is a major cause of economic problems in all regions;
- More devolution could help the north thrive and support the whole country’s future prosperity.
Discussing the IPPR report in detail, conference delegates unanimously agreed that regions, towns and cities across England must be empowered to tackle the severe regional divides that centralised governance has created.
The conference also heard that 2019 was also a milestone for the Northern Powerhouse agenda, which was initially introduced by former chancellor George Osborne in 2014.
Since 2014, said the report, the north has seen 200,000 more children in poverty, 150,000 more people in low paid work, and the number of trains delayed or cancelled has doubled.
This, says the report, exposes the fact that every new announcement by a visiting Westminster politician serves as reminder that, despite calls for devolution, key decisions about the north’s future are still taken from afar by remote politicians with no practical or local knowledge of the areas and communities their decisions affect.
The conference also heard that December’s general election result gave the new government a huge mandate for change, with a large number of newly elected northern-based Conservative MPs crashing through Labour’s so-called red-wall - all adding to the pressure for government to devolve real powers to the north and other regions of the country.
However, despite still waiting to see concrete evidence of the big promises made by the government during the election campaign, the north is moving forward. The four metro mayors elected in 2017 and 2018 were joined by a fifth last year, when Jamie Driscoll was elected as mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority last May. Driscoll was an engineer before being elected and these five mayors now govern almost half of the north’s population.
Less than three years into their terms, the ambitious and energetic mayors are all proving the case for devolution with, for example, Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen successfully promoting a range of innovations in clean growth. Potential funding has been secured for hydrogen generation that will allow the Tees Valley, which already produces 50% of the UK’s hydrogen, to utilise this resource properly and keep manufacturing jobs in the region while also building on the global drive to cut carbon emissions.
But the mayors, regional business leaders and trade unions are continuing to press for greater powers, with the IPPR report claiming it is unsustainable that the north, home to 15 million people and larger than most EU countries, still depends on a highly centralised model of devolution, with key decisions being made in or imposed by a government hundreds of miles away.
Speaking at the conference, Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, said: “Keeping the majority of money, power and control in London simply means that Westminster can turn the taps on and off when it likes. We can’t waste our new powers by simply repeating the mistakes of the past.
“Mayors need the authority to make a difference and we want real devolution with the powers to help transform the lives of the millions of people we serve, making key decisions on infrastructure, the environment, transport and future investment based on what our regions actually need to thrive.
“It’s not a radical concept - the CBI, the local business communities and the trade unions are all on board - so let’s make the case for a progressive future and make a real push for devolution.”
The CBI's Hannah Richmond also stressed the need for devolution to have real powers, saying: “Business is optimistic about the year ahead, and we have a government with a strong mandate for change in the north. We need improved locally-based decision making and the willingness to put power back into the hands of the regions. We believe in devolution rather than delegation, delivering real power to the regions.”
Luke Raikes, IPPR report co-author, said: “2020 is a time for real change. We have a new decade, with a new government making big promises. One of the big opportunities this country now has is to return power to the regions, towns and cities of England through substantial devolution - starting in the north.”