It is January 1st 2018 and Rachel Reeves arrives at the Leeds headquarters of the new Council For The North.
The Leeds MP got the job of Chancellor in 2015 when Ed Balls refused to support Labour leader Ed Miliband’s coalition strategy. Balls wanted a Labour minority government which would not have to compromise with the diminished group of Lib Dems and their new leader Westmorland MP Tim Farron.
The Chancellor hadn’t far to go from her West Leeds constituency to the shiny new offices of the Council of the North in the city’s tallest building, Bridgewater Place. However it was an important visit emphasising that the new government was serious about this latest attempt to bridge the North South divide.
The task was in good hands. The Council’s leader is Louise Ellman, a woman with a long standing commitment to regional devolution. It was she who had insisted that the Council be a directly elected body. The large constituencies from the Scottish Border in the North to the Humber and Mersey in the South had elected 40 representatives, albeit on a low turn out, the year before.
Reeves had insisted on sticking to a pledge made at a Downtown event in Leeds in 2013 to keep the Local Enterprise Partnerships(LEPs)that the previous Coalition government had set up after they had scrapped the regional development agencies(RDAs). The LEPs had got off to a slow start with minimal staffing and little money. However veteran Tory peer Lord Heseltine managed to get their powers and funding increased from 2013 onwards, but in truth it was an uphill battle against a Whitehall mentality that could not see beyond the M25.
Reeves accepted that the great cities of the North had a key role in revitalising the Northern economy and the LEPs had a role in that; but ten years of a flat lining economy had left the North trailing further and further behind the South East that had recovered quickly from 2014.
What was needed she concluded was a Northern Revolution whereby a government in London would be truly committed to devolving real power and massive resources to the North. Before embarking on the project she had spoken to the 80 year old John Prescott who had attempted to devolve power and democracy to the North through RDAs and elected assemblies 14 years before. Prescott told her his efforts had been undermined by a Prime Minister and Whitehall mandarins that were not prepared to give the assemblies real power. He wasn’t surprised that the first, and only, referendum in the North East had led to a no vote.
The Labour led Coalition in 2015 didn’t mess around with a referendum to set up the Council of the North. It was a manifesto pledge and that was good enough to set up the body in Bridgewater Place.
There had been howls of anguish from Manchester that it wasn’t chosen as the seat of government. Many speculated that the decision would have been different if the Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein and leader Sir Richard Leese had not retired in 2014.
There had also been a mighty row across the North as the remaining district councils like South Ribble and Selby had been merged into unitary councils to avoid the charge that there would be too many tiers of government for business to cope with.
The North was now governed by a clear democratic structure. People only had one local council. There were the LEPs for sub regions and then the big scale economic development to give the North a chance of closing the gap with the South was in the hands of the Council for the North with its motto “Leading Not Pleading”.
The Council was set up to provide a common view to Westminster and Brussels (should we stay in after the 2019 EU Referendum) on major scientific and infrastructure investment, higher education and skills and overall resource allocation. Go North is the Council’s think tank bringing together local government, business and civil society.
There is to be a Northern Plan to decide on competing demands. Not every northern town can have a cultural cluster or a nanotechnology centre. New nuclear power stations and housing estates have to be built somewhere and not all rail and road schemes can go ahead. The approach was not to be prescriptive on the detail but it would be a big improvement on London taking the decisions. Although HS2 track was now being laid through the Chilterns, there were still doubts about its priority for the North.
The benefits of the nearly completed Northern Hub in Manchester would benefit East West rail communication, but the Council had made it one of their priorities to still do more to link the Northern cities. Pressure for better connectivity was building from the Merseyside area with the deep water terminal taking ever larger ships, the newly opened Second Crossing of the Mersey and the early stages of Liverpool and Wirral Waters Atlantic Gateway development.
With its strong powers over the train operators the Council intended to make sure that never again would northern commuters be fobbed off with second hand trains from southern networks.
On the financial front the Council was looking forward to working with the regional banks that had finally got under way. Northern venture capital funds associated with the local government pension funds promised to do well.
BBC North has now been broadcasting from Salford Quays for six years and is now the centre of a major creative industries employment hub. The Council now intends to use this example to get other major government departments and companies to relocate from the South East where property costs have escalated dramatically during the recovery.
The 25 universities in the North of England have a competitive advantage for students now used to living with tuition fees. It is hoped that working with the Council of the North there will never again be a Daresbury or Astra Zeneca episode where hi tech jobs are moved away because of superior research skills in Oxbridge or London.
Rachel Reeves meeting with Louise Ellman overran. They had much to discuss, but both concluded that a Northern Revolution was now possible.