Back in 1999 it seemed probable that the regions of England would be given the chance of creating their own ‘mini parliaments’. Tony Blair’s New Labour government had offered Scotland and Wales the opportunity of having significant powers devolved to national assemblies, and they had overwhelmingly accepted the invitation through referenda.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was a huge advocate of regional government, and on the back of establishing Regional Development Agencies in the English regions ‘Two Jags’ wanted elected regional assemblies to be introduced. As Leader of the North West Assembly at the time I can say with some authority that this was no ‘pie in the sky’ aspiration. In The North West we had had an assembly for many years, bringing together local authority and business leaders from Lancashire, Cumbria, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire, with some success.
Strategies around European funding, transport, the environment and planning, alongside economic development, had been worked through and the North West was arguably the most developed model in England, certainly recognised favourably by European decision makers, not least because we had set up a very effective lobbying and policy making office in Brussels.
Despite this the government, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the North East referendum would be held first. Nowhere near as sophisticated in its political structures, the other key issue I picked up was that trust between local politicians and the electorate was never as strong in the North East as was necessary if such a radical change was to be supported.
Not surprisingly the North East voted a resounding ‘No’ to a Geordie parliament and lost with it was the opportunity for other regions to have a say.
We will never know how the other regions would have voted, but the one thing that is certain is that there remains a democratic deficit in the North compared to not only the South East but Scotland and Wales too. Powers devolved to local authorities and in a few places elected mayors have had to be hard fought for and still pale into insignificance when compare to the power, influence and responsibility enjoyed by the mayor of London, or many city and regional leaders across Europe.
The only metropolitan region that has made any real progress in this area is Greater Manchester. The politically astute management over a quarter of a century, driven in large part by Manchester’s leader Sir Richard Leese alongside his chief executive and this month’s DQ Icon Sir Howard Bernstein, has enabled this conglomerate of council’s to work in collaboration, in partnership with key stakeholders from the business community and elsewhere, to form a formidable combined authority that, year by year, eeks out concessions and more resources from central government.
Perhaps this is the only pragmatic way in which the North can make the power grab we need to start to close the unhealthy economic imbalance that currently exists in the UK. Or maybe we just need a revolution!