CUMMING AND GOING.
Fears have been expressed that we’ve lost our northern champion at the heart of government with the departure of Prime Ministerial aide Dominic Cummings.
I disagree. What is needed to promote the levelling up agenda in Whitehall is a combination of a high-ranking member of the Cabinet, with the backing of the Prime Minister and the obedience of the anti-devolution civil service.
Cummings thought he could drive through the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda by being insulting to MPs and civil servants. It was always going to end in tears.
Over the years we came closest to effective support for a regional agenda when the then Chancellor, George Osborne, invented the Northern Powerhouse. Prime Minister David Cameron was mildly supportive and for a while the civil service got on with building the infrastructure through elected mayors and limited investment to make it work. Then along came Theresa May. She wasn’t interested and three years were wasted.
ON THE LEVEL.
Boris Johnson won the General Election with extraordinary success in breaking down the northern wall and was more or less obliged to promise a levelling up agenda for the North. The pandemic has slowed that initiative which is perhaps understandable. What is less excusable is the inaction over the Shared Prosperity Fund whereby the UK government is meant to replace the current regional support given by the European Union to a host of projects in the north.
THE PRESCOTT PLAN
The biggest champion of the north was John Prescott who, in the late nineties, put in place regional development agencies (RDAs) backed by civil servants in regional government offices. He wanted to give the RDAs democratic responsibility and media profile by having elected regional assemblies.
This excellent framework was destroyed by Tony Blair and Dominic Cummings. Blair’s enthusiasm for devolution didn’t stretch beyond Scotland and Northern Ireland and he stymied the setting up of assemblies by requiring referendums. This played into the hands of a young activist, Dominic Cummings, who already had a contempt for elected politicians. Despite the fact that Prescott’s proposals would have swept away hundreds of councillors by creating unitary local government under the assemblies; Cummings mounted an effective, but dishonest, opposition campaign against an assembly in the North East by saying it would just mean an extra tier of politicians.
JAKE BERRY, THE NEW NORTH CHAMPION?
The Rossendale MP Jake Berry served for three years as Northern Powerhouse Minister and has now formed the Northern Research Group of MPs. They say they will hold the Prime Minister to his promises to level up the north.
These northern Tories know how desperate things are becoming with businesses folding under the pandemic pressure and people getting more and more frustrated with the government’s mishandling of the crisis whilst it indulges in Downing Street faction fighting.
Meanwhile Ministers have work to do to repair relations with the only tangible signs of regional power, the elected mayors.
I have issues with the mayoral model over the regional one. For instance, the saga over a housing plan for Greater Manchester. However, these mayors are champions of their patches, as long as they don’t get stroppy, as Andy Burnham showed the other week.
The demand for more devolution for the north is growing as the pandemic goes on. We will see if Whitehall finally gets it.