Do we need a ‘Citizens’ Convention’ for the North East?

Last week the 21st Century Challenges programme travelled to Newcastle, to the Great North Museum, to run a public discussion meeting exploring the opportunities and challenges that decentralisation might bring to the North East of England. Our regional partners were the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) and the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (APL) at Newcastle University.

Chaired by Peter Hetherington, distinguished contributor to the Guardian and current chair of the Town and Country Planning Association, our panel set out their own viewpoints on the topic in hand before opening the floor to a lengthy question and answer session.

Andrew Lewis, Assistant Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council, suggested that in discussing the finer detail of the Devolution Deal between central Government and the North East Combined Authority, it is all too easy to forget the purpose of the Deal in the first place: to achieve objectives around economic growth, jobs, skills, health, housing and infrastructure for the betterment of the population of the North East. Securing sustainable, well paid, skilled jobs, Andrew argued, is difficult in a system where Councils are bidding into ad hoc, small pots of centrally-held funds. Instead, devolution provides an opportunity to localise support for the most vulnerable; to bring funding and decision-making to the proximity of those who can benefit from this.

This viewpoint was echoed by Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for both Business, Innovation and Skills, and Culture, Media and Sport. Chi argued that the ultimate aim of decentralisation and devolution had to be self-determination, commenting that regional self-determination, building on a strong sense of cultural identity already present in the North East, should be the ‘prize’ from devolution. However, Chi expressed concerns about the danger of the potential to decentralise cuts to public spending, when local government is facing large cuts to budgets, whilst centralising programmes where funding continues: basically central Government passing the responsibility for cuts to local government. Scrutinising devolution deals will be important to ensure that local people benefit from the best deals possible.

Democracy and the role of local people in decision-making was the central tenet of Paul Salveson’s contribution to the panel. Paul’s background is in transport, specifically trains, but he joined the panel in an independent capacity, representing the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. Named after an inspirational social reformer and local councillor, the Foundation is concerned with stimulating debate on democratic devolution to the North of England. Paul suggested that a democratic underpinning is currently severely lacking in debates around devolution. He called for a strong, democratically elected regional government with tax-raising powers. He argued that 60% of people are unaware about what a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is, or could mean for them, and therefore much more effort was required to communicate and debate with local people, for example through a ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’.

Our final panellist, Professor Andy Pike, Director of CURDS, Newcastle University, set out the facts: that the UK is one of the most centralised systems of governance in the world and that as other countries have in fact decentralised their governments, we have reduced the taxes collected and spent locally as a proportion of total tax take. Yet despite this increasing centralisation, public service outcomes across the UK remain very different, whilst people are progressively more disengaged from and disillusioned by politics. Andy argued that the Northern Powerhouse is ultimately about making financial savings and public sector reform, yet a vision for what the Northern Powerhouse is meant to achieve is fundamentally lacking. He asked whether there were in fact more transparent ways of doing things, and questioned whether the Northern Powerhouse and decentralisation policies do in fact represent real decentralisation. Andy stated that there are a lot of ‘centralising characteristics’ at the heart of them – for example the insistence by central Government of a single model of ‘Metro Mayor’ governance across different regions.

A lively and engaging question and answer session touched repeatedly on the divide between urban and rural. Members of the audience questioned whether Metro Mayors, perhaps appropriate for urban centres, could be applied to rural areas and polycentric economies. Our speakers agreed that this was a political, rather than a rational decision regarding how best to govern these areas.

A lack of public engagement on all of the issues raised by the panel was also a theme. One questioner made the case powerfully that the public need to spend time thinking about what they want from devolution; the structures that they want to see and what they want to see happen. He questioned whether there was a structure currently which would allow citizens to engage with the North East Combined Authority and engage with them on the development of the Devolution Deal; a suggestion that Andrew Lewis promised to take away with him.

In summing up the debate, Paul Salveson suggested that devolution plans currently on the table for the North East, and indeed for other areas of England grappling with similar issues, should be seen as transitional, and that citizens and local policy-makers should try to get out of them what they could. It’s clear that the debate and dialogue within the RGS-IBG discussion meeting could have carried on for far longer than the alloted 90-minutes. Andy Pike made an interesting point: that ultimately this is a question about constitutionally, how the UK operates as a Government entity – as a country. Many similar dialogue meetings are required to solve this huge question in the interest of all of us as citizens of regions across the UK.