The North needs ‘Devo Met’!


The corridors of Westminster power have been shaken and stirred following the fallout from the Scottish devolution referendum campaign, with those in favour of independence losing the battle but, arguably, winning the war.

The ‘solemn vow’ from the three mainstream party political leaders that promised additional powers TO THE Scottish Parliament on a whole range of issues from welfare to tax will have to be delivered, and this has left Whitehall mandarins and (mostly) Tory MPs banging on about fair votes for the English and an even playing field.

The answer, they suggest, is an English Parliament. Quite frankly I can think of nothing worse. I have sleepless nights imagining the type of country my kids will grow up in with a cabinet made up of John Redwood type characters, ably supported by a rump of Nigel Farage –led UKIPers no doubt, in the unholiest of unholy alliances.

It is also incredible to me that those politicians that have happily gone through the voting lobbies to bludgeon through austerity budgets that have so clearly hit the north of England harder than the south can be whinging about ‘an even playing field’ now.

What London centric politicians, civil servants and commentators need to understand is that it is devolution beyond Westminster that is needed, not devolution within an archaic institution that is no longer fit for purpose.

If Scotland is to get Devo Max then we in the North need to demand Devo Met! The city regions of England north of the Watford gap have to be given the same powers, responsibilities and opportunities as our Scottish counterparts.

Labour is right to object to the Prime Ministers bid to rush through legislation that would create a new constitutional settlement that none of us have discussed, let alone signed up to. Nevertheless, the idea that we need a ‘constitutional convention’ to sort a new governance structure for the UK is highly uninspiring too – and unnecessary,

A whole range of senior figures, including Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis, have written extensively on city region led decentralisation that would bring together leading decision makers with business leaders to create a genuine ‘localism’ and Authorities that can deliver on what is important to their own regions economic growth and social agendas without going cap in hand to central government.

As Sir Howard Bernstein said at the Downtown Leeds event last week, it is beyond nonsensical that he has to get permission from a pen pusher in London in order to simply close a road!

Progressive politicians and business leaders should be arguing for a timetable to deliver city region and county region governance models. We need an action plan to deliver this – not another talking shop.

Change is now inevitable, but what type of change? The North of England needs to make sure Scotland’s gain does not lead to Northern pain, with a stitch up that would still see us governed and dominated by the Westminster elite! Downtown will be campaigning for Devo Met – I hope you join us.

Devolution for the North is not guaranteed

North Devolution

I have had a particularly interesting week, speaking at an event on the future of transport for the Institute of Directors and hosting a Downtown forum in Leeds with Sir Howard Bernstein and Tom Riordan on Wednesday, whilst keeping a close eye on the fascinating debate on the Independence Referendum in Scotland, the result of which is analysed elsewhere in this bulletin by my colleague Jim Hancock.

The assumption following a significant number of concessions to the Scots by Westminster’s top table during the course of the campaign is that England’s regions will be able to negotiate a new settlement that will see significant powers and responsibilities devolved, probably to the city region level, sooner rather than later.

But, as Leeds Chief Executive Riordan pointed out, the Mandarins in Whitehall will ‘be on manoeuvers’ in a bid to ensure that any such transfer of power is as diluted as much as they can get away with.

Bernstein told the Downtown audience that in Greater Manchester this year £22 Billion of public spending had taken place. He made a compelling and straightforward case as to why we would get a better bang for our buck if local politicians, decision makers and business leaders were able to decide how that resource should be applied, rather than those decisions being taken by London based civil servants who simply know cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds as places on a map. One of these faceless bureaucrats recently asked a fellow presenter of mine at City Talk radio station if Liverpool was in the North East – I kid you not.

Scotland’s ‘indy’ campaign means that the genie is out of the bottle as far as how resources are currently distributed, and where the power really lies in deciding how that cash should be spent; and clearly the North has started to get its political act together with a coordinated approach to transport infrastructure spend through the publication of the One North document. There is also a genuine lobbying effort taking place to wrest as much devolution from Westminster to the region’s as is possible from the core cities group.

Nonetheless, Riordan’s warning about Whitehall Mandarins needs to be heeded, as my visit to London last week starkly reminded me. The media, business leaders and most MP’s down there still believe that the North should be content to get the crumbs off ‘their’ table.

A third runway, Cross Rail, more investment in the London road network, an average spend per head of population that is around £15 more than is spent on the rest of us are benefits that will not be relinquished without a fight. The business community needs to join our political leaders in that fight.

Many of the challenges we face, not least skills shortages, connecting quickly and effectively with a wider customer base in our own region, and the business support and economic development agenda, would all be better tackled at the city region level. If the private sector doesn’t get behind those messages, the Mandarins who believe we still wear cloth caps and clogs will deny us the opportunity. Join the conversation, get involved. Downtown is providing you with the platform to do so with a series of conferences throughout the autumn, so there is no excuse!

For details of Downtown’s business conference’s please CLICK HERE.

Where did it all go wrong?


When Westminster politicians and mandarins met their Scottish counterparts back in 2012 to negotiate the terms of the referendum for independence, they believed that they had delivered a crucial blow to the devolution bandwagon by refusing to allow the Nationalists the opportunity to have an additional option on the polling slip that, basically, offered voters extra devolved powers within the union.

The thinking was that a majority of Scots would jump at the chance of more power for a Scottish Parliament that was still within the structure of UK governance arrangements, but they would run a mile from the notion of abandoning a 300 year union that, let’s face it, has been the principle reason for Scotland not becoming some sort of third world banana republic!

As if those north of the border would be daft enough to go for full blown separation given the enormous economic damage it would cause to their nation; why give them an easy third option that would offer Alex Salmond & co everything they wanted with the continued safety net of the United Kingdom?

Of course it is easy in hindsight to suggest that this was an arrogance too far, and that the third option, which is ironically now being offered in the form of ‘Devo Max’ as Westminster politicians scramble to recover lost ground in the final days of the referendum campaign, should have been accepted and put on the ballot paper. But in actual fact at the time the negotiation team was applauded for its strength and tactical genius in putting the Nationalists in their box. Few, if any, political commentators believed that the people of Scotland would vote for a divorce from the UK.

Of course what nobody could factor in back than was the absolutely shambolic nature of the ‘better together’ campaign that was to follow.

Putting the super bright but charisma- lite Alistair Darling in charge of the ‘No’ campaign was a stroke of lunacy that must have had Nationalists rubbing their hands with glee. Darling, in fairness, has had poor material to work with. The negativity of the messages from Better Together has turned people off massively; at best being seen as ‘same old politics’ at worse bullying.

By comparison the ‘Yes’ campaign have been consistent in simple messaging, time for a change, get the government you vote for, you can’t trust Westminster; and this has been articulated by a charismatic leader.

This has led to an incredible turnaround in opinion and latest polls show that the race is now too close to call. The Sunday Times poll last week gave ‘Yes’ a 2 point lead that has sent shockwaves through the corridors of political, establishment and financial powerhouses across the UK.

Salmond has secured the ‘big mo’ just at the right time, and the Nationalists can smell an unlikely victory.

Belatedly ‘No’ have woken up to the fact that it is in a genuine contest that it may lose. The big gun that is Gordon Brown, still a popular figure in Scotland, has been rolled out with the alternative proposals that, had they been included in the referendum poll in the first place, would have enabled us to avoid all this drama.

Despite the mistakes, the poor leadership, the lack of clarity and vision, I still think that the Union will prevail. The uncertainties that exist about an Independent Scotland; the unknown economic impact; a new nations place in the world…and of course the guarantee of ‘Devo Max’.

When people go into the polling booth next week the majority of them will, in my opinion, vote NO. I wouldn’t put money on it though.

UDI for the North gets ever closer


As the Scots get ready to go to the polls to decide if they want total independence from the UK, or simply accept a generous additional devolution package that is on offer, the North of England continues to lobby Westminster in the hope that we can get some extra crumbs from the table that doesn’t include multi billion pound infrastructure schemes that, though much needed and long overdue, are at least a decade away from completion.

Local government cuts may have been necessary five years ago, but it is fair to say that those cuts were not imposed in an equitable fashion across the country, and cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds; and indeed counties like Lancashire, have been tasked with taking more than their fair share of the pain since 2010.

Had the austerity programme been evenly distributed across the country then Manchester would be £1million a week better off. Similar statistics are also true in other northern regions.

But it is not only cash but power and responsibility that the north has been starved of. The Scottish parliament has enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy since 1999, whilst even the Welsh Assembly, representing a population that is fewer than Greater Manchester and many other English city regions, have more say over their nations affairs than we do here.

Downtown has long argued that structural reform of local government is vital. However, with that reform must include genuine decentralisation of real additional powers, not least the ability to raise and spend local taxes, greater planning and regeneration autonomy and the opportunity to spend education, training and employment budgets in a more locally relevant fashion.

These ‘asks’ have been made in a rather hopeful, half hearted way in the past; but the Scottish situation means that English devolution is right back on the agenda and this time political and business leaders mean business.

Already the mainstream political parties are talking far more seriously about how a new English devolution settlement can be progressed post the next election. The job now is to turn talk in to action, and once and for all give big northern cities the chance to shape their own destiny.

What would Scottish Independence mean for the North?

Scot Independence

2014 could see Scotland separate from the rest of the UK. The Independence referendum takes place in September, and having been way behind in early polling, the Scottish Nationalists appear to have gained some momentum in recent months with an effective charm offensive from its leader Alex Salmond, combined with a lacklustre approach from the ‘NO’ campaign which is being led by former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling.

The resurgence of support for Independence reminds us once again of the importance of charisma and personality in modern politics. Salmond has both in abundance, and whilst Darling has a huge intellect he is hardly likely to match Scotland’s First Minister when it comes to rallying the troops.

In the end my gut instinct tells me that, despite Salmond’s best efforts, the Scots are too cautious to take a leap of faith into the unknown, and that the lack of economic clarity offered by the Nationalists, coupled with doubts over what Scotland’s relationship with the EU would be if they were to opt out of the union will see the status quo maintained.

Nonetheless, the discussion and debate in the run up to the autumn poll will be fascinating, and will continue to highlight the fact that, even without total independence, the Scots have enjoyed significant devolved powers through its own parliament for over a decade now. How long will it be before the regions of England begin to demand similar devolution that would enable the charismatic and big personality politicians to take on the Alex Salmond or Boris Johnson role in areas like the North West and Yorkshire?

That the North is still suffocated by London’s financial and political power is irrefutable. It is no good us moaning about London though. We have to take advantage of the fact that one of the most successful global cities is on our doorstep and demand the political tools that will help us do it.

Metro mayors, regional parliaments and county commissioners have all been debated and discussed. Perhaps it’s time for us to turn one or more of these ideas into reality?