REAL POWER OR A CONFUSING MESS?
This week the deadline passed for northern councils to submit their bids for devolved power. Will this herald the real start for a coherent, democratically run, Northern Powerhouse or a mishmash of devolved functions confusing to business and voters alike?
Government policy faces two ways on this issue. On the one hand they want requests for devolution to come from our city and county regions, allowing for a varied pattern to suit the area concerned. This is in the belief that one size doesn’t fit all. On the other hand ministers are very firm in their belief that elected mayors are a condition for real “Manchester” style devolution.
As deadline day approached there were frantic moves across the North to get bids in. In some areas it mirrored football’s transfer deadline day. But before surveying the complicated picture from Merseyside to Leeds, let’s remind ourselves what this is all about and whether it matters to business.
Conservatives in the previous Coalition government were determined to dismantle the structure of regional power put in place by Labour. They believed that city regions provided the real engines for growth working alongside business driven Local Enterprise Partnerships. Many Labour city leaders agreed with them, particularly Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester Council. He formed a powerful alliance with the Chancellor George Osborne in launching the concept of the Northern Powerhouse to link major cities like Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool together.
Greater Manchester struck a deal before the election to get widespread economic, housing and health powers. In return they reluctantly accepted an elected mayor. Former MP Tony Lloyd is filling that role on an interim basis.
Other cities in the North were much more reluctant to accept an elected mayor and perhaps hung back awaiting the outcome of the General Election. Now with a fully Conservative administration and a new Local Government Secretary, the choice has been simplified It’s Greg Clarke’s way or the highway.
The sort of powers that might be devolved are important for business. The skills gap, poor transport links, planning, and access to finance are some of the issues firms are concerned about and being able to influence policy locally rather than traipsing down to Whitehall must be good.
So as the deadline passes, what is the picture in the North? In Greater Manchester the deal is done whilst on Merseyside things remain complex. The bid, which is also a response to the general Spending Review, has been described as “a work in progress” by officials. Veteran Liverpool Lib Dem councillor Richard Kemp prefers “last minute” which he regards as the wrong approach when control of £4.5bn of expenditure is involved. The problem on Merseyside has been the difficult relationship between the leader of the City Region, Cllr Phil Davies of Wirral and the elected mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson. The latter believes in an elected mayor for the sub region whereas other councils in the sub region see it as a recipe for a Liverpool takeover.
To the south Warrington and Cheshire Local Enterprise Partnership is putting in its own bid for devolved powers, not wishing to be overshadowed by the city based Northern Powerhouse.
Similar sentiments prevailed in Lancashire last week at a Downtown sponsored event. The county’s leader Jennifer Mein pointed out they had the third largest economy in the North. Business wants a united bid for power but once again there are local sensitivities as Lancashire has to deal with Blackburn and Blackpool unitary authorities as well as 12 district councils.
In Yorkshire there has been a lively debate around three proposals. Some argue that the Yorkshire brand is known around the world and so the devolution deal should be county wide. Geoff Boycott for elected mayor anyone? Leeds remains convinced that a city region based solution is best involving some of the surrounding towns. Meanwhile a third group would like to contain Leeds and go for a North and East Yorkshire sub region.
This process across the North has lacked real input from the people and it will be down to Communities Secretary Greg Clarke to hand down decisions from the centre once again.
Follow me at www.jimhancock.co.uk