The population of England and Wales has increased by 3.7 million since 2002 which represents a huge logistical challenge not just in terms of planning local services but also in terms of addressing the widening democratic deficit in England which host the lions share of the increase. We ought to forget talk of an English parliament, which reinforces our worst top down instincts and look again at devolution for England’s regions.
The overwhelming vote for additional powers to be given to the Welsh Assembly last year, the prospect of an independent Scotland and the substantial devolved powers afforded to London underscore the continued isolation of the regions.
The coalitions localism agenda is feeble and almost entirely dependent on mayors and police commissioners which are unable to set the pace and tone of socioeconomic development. Meanwhile our Celtic neighbours forge ahead with progressive policies in education, social care and transport.
The northern regions of England are experiencing higher levels of unemployment particularly amongst 16-24 year-olds, falling property values in stark contrast to the south and a disproportionate number of folding businesses. The fall out from the coalitions economic policies provides fertile ground for the center-left to recapture its reforming instinct after dashed hopes over House of Lords reform and the Alternative vote.
The coalition’s cuts agenda gives us an opportunity to use the increasing North/South divide to radically change the political landscape in the UK by making the case for a Northern Assembly which could be the laboratory for wider democratic renewal and a means to reconnect with voters. The scale of the challenge is underscored by IPPR-North’s publication Richer Yet Poorer: Economic inequality and polarisation in the North of England.
Few of the challenges faced by the north can be tackled by tinkering no matter how well intentioned by Westminster politicians or Whitehall mandarins. A Northern Assembly could play a significant role in redressing those inequalities and play a part in reinvigorating the northern economy, which has never fully recovered from the 18 year pummelling dealt out by the Thatcher and Major administrations.
England remains one of the few countries in Europe without regional government and we’re poorer for it. Rebalancing our economy away from financial services necessitates a robust development plan for our old industrial heartlands which would be enhanced by a regional focus where politicians were not only accountable locally but fixed to a metric which exclusively served the interests of the community that elected them.
We ought to be forging those closer ties and the sounds coming from Ed Miliband are promising:
“…We should get on with devolving power away from Westminster to English local authorities and the people, without the need for mayoral referendums or such-like”.
We needn’t wait for a Labour government to get the ball rolling on this issue. Abolishing the former indirectly elected regional assemblies and withdrawing funding from Regional development agencies has stalled progress but if local authorities take the new leaders boards seriously a lot of the ground work for closer integration in the future can be done now.