Northern Powerhouse or ‘Northern Powercut’?

Tomorrow evening (3 December) a panel of distinguished speakers and an equally distinguished chair will take to the stage to discuss, in front of a public audience, the topic of ‘Decentralisation: what’s in it for the North?’. Coming just after the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, when the Chancellor, George Osborne, once again reiterated the Conservatives’ commitment to building a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, this is an extremely timely opportunity to examine what this flagship initiative might mean for the communities of the North East of England and beyond. Is there a danger that a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, heralded as built on a resurgence of the North’s industrial heritage and the ‘march of the makers’, could in fact end up being as much hot air as the steam that once turned the turbines and engines of these great Victorian manufacturing centres?

Taking the discussion to the North East of England, to the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne, provides an opportunity for the RGS-IBG, and our panellists, drawn from politics, the NGO sector, local government and academia, to find out what the public think about devolution; about the challenges and opportunities that this might present for them as individuals, their communities and the places in which they live. Our panellists will spend a few moments communicating their own views before engaging in a lively question and answer session. In advance of the discussion, we reflect here on some of the views and positions that will undoubtedly be raised tomorrow evening.

Devolution could, on the face of it, represent an opportunity for innovation in the delivery of infrastructure and public services between local councils. Equally, without a central ‘controlling mind’ the decentralisation of power currently vested in Whitehall to a myriad of administrative centres could result in a mish-mash of delivery models that start and end at the boundaries of combined local authorities. And could a Northern Powerhouse actually end up being more of a ‘North Western’ powerhouse, with a focus on Manchester and Liverpool, for example? Peter Hetherington, long-time Guardian contributor and chair of the Town and Country Planning Association, thinks so:

“While it’s easy for cynics to dismiss the Powerhouse ideal as a triumph of spin over substance  – important, after all, for councils to engage with the government – undeniably, perhaps understandably,  the concept has a cross-Pennine Leeds–Manchester–Liverpool bias underpinned by new and renewed rail links. Two issues: not clear how the North East fits into the picture and, crucially, does the concept represent functional rather than fiscal devolution? By 2020 councils will have lost 50% of their funding and need new revenue-raising powers, and assurances about a national equalisation funding  formula, if they are not to experience a northern power cut”

The notion of a ‘northern powercut’ is one that was expressed earlier this year by geographers, discussing their work at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, although the phraseology wasn’t perhaps as catchy. Professor Graham Haughton, University of Manchester, warned that without a focus on smaller and medium-sized towns, such as Ashington, Chester le Street and Morpeth, the Northern Powerhouse could not flourish. He called upon the Government and local policy-makers to seek to harness the growth potential of all parts of the North East of England, not simply large cities such as Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds.

A second speaker on our panel, Paul Salveson MBE, will speak on behalf of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.  Drawing inspiration from the work of the Foundation’s namesake, suffragette, socialist, campaigner and local councillor, the Foundation calls for greater devolution to the North of England but through truly democratic means – so through directly elected local Government. Commenting in advance of the debate, Paul Salveson said:

“There’s a huge discrepancy between the devolution offered to English regions and the tried and tested democratic models in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London. The North East still seems wounded by the 2004 vote against a regional assembly – but the world has moved on. The case for strong, democratically elected regional assemblies with real power and resources has never been stronger. We need a Northern Citizen’s Convention to develop an agreed approach instead of an imposed devolution model.”

On 23rd October the North East Combined Authority signed an agreement with the Government for the devolution of significant powers, funding and responsibilities to the region. A mayor will be elected in 2017 who will preside over the discharge of these enhanced powers. The devolution settlement will see the creation of a £1.5bn new ‘North East Investment Fund’, targeted at boosting economic growth and supporting the region to compete in international markets. An ‘Employment and Skills Board’ will be created, with the overhaul of post-16 skills, training and employment. With the NHS, the Combined Authority will establish a new Commission for Health and Social Care Integration, to examine how different elements of health and social care can be commissioned and provided locally, in a joined up fashion. A new North East Land Board will be convened to oversee an ambitious new programme of house building and earmark locations for this. Finally, the Authority will assume responsibility for its own transport budget and transport infrastructure, overseeing the development of innovations such as smart ticketing.

Whilst the details of the agreement seem certain, this is still subject to consultation with stakeholders. The public are encouraged to submit their views to shape the future of devolution to the North East. The RGS-IBG panel discussion, organised in conjunction with our regional partners, the University of Newcastle, provides a great opportunity to come to hear informed speakers discuss what devolution may mean for Newcastle upon Tyne, the North East and the wider North of England, to contribute to discussion and for citizens to form their views to contribute to democratic decision to inform the future of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

A limited number of tickets are still available for tomorrow night’s event: it is free of charge to attend (booking via Eventbrite). 



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