Here are the answers to the most common questions I get about devolution in the North of England.
Why can’t we just leave things alone?
Northern England is much poorer than similar regions in North America and Northern Europe. The North’s cities are particularly unproductive, and they require huge transfers of cash from Southern England to provide basic services like education and the NHS.
A lot of people in Southern England think that we’ve been trying to fix this for decades and that it’s an impossible task. They’re tired of sending more and more of their taxes north each year. They think that we should spend even more money in the South, and help northern people move to better lives there.
A lot of northern people disagree. They think that the UK government in London has taken poor decisions in trying to grow the northern economy, and that if we made better decisions, the north could be just as well off as similar places like the Netherlands, Finland or Ireland. We think that these policies would make the UK as a whole richer than the alternative of continuing to focus investment on South East England.
So why not just make better decisions?
The current system is what has led to the current failure. There is no reason to hope that continuing with the same system will give better results.
The problem is that most top civil servants, MPs, Lords, judges, media, learned societies, charities, and think-tanks lives in a single city that isn’t anything like Northern England. They try their best not to, but it’s inevitable that they generate policies based on their experiences. That means that they develop policies and assign funding with preference to the South of England. This has been happening for over a century, and the UK’s current economic imbalance is largely a result of it.
We could fix this bias really easily: move the UK capital to Manchester. We’d get slow and steady rebalancing with minimal change and without the mess of devolution. In 200 years, we might have a dominant north and a neglected south, but let’s deal with that then.
The only real problem with moving the capital to Manchester is that there’s absolutely no chance of it happening.
So what we need is for the North of England to take its own, better, decisions. This will help the North grow more quickly. We’re pretty sure that this will work because Scotland, which has been taking its own decisions for a while and is pretty similar to Northern England, has been growing more quickly for decades. Scotland requires much less subsidy from Southern England to fund its public services and it provides a higher standard of living for its people.
Okay, I get it, we need devolution. But why not ask Northern people what they want?
Ask Northern people what change they want and the overwhelming answer is “nothing, just more money”. The problem is that the North’s economy is too weak to pay for higher spending itself, and Southern England already sends a huge amount of money North each year. It isn’t keen on sending even more.
To try and reach a compromise, successive UK governments have come up with reasonable proposals that might improve things in Northern England.
It asked some Northern people if they wanted a regional assembly. We said no.
It asked Northern people if they wanted the alternative vote. We said no.
It asked Northern people if they wanted city mayors. We said no.
It asked Northern people if they wanted to remain in the EU – a body which underpinned much growth in Northern England. We said no.
It’s now so sure that people would say no to metro mayors that it’s given up asking.
In summary, Northern England is unhappy with its current situation but has rejected in referendums any of the changes that the UK as a whole would accept. At national elections Northern England keeps voting to end austerity while expecting Southern England to pay the bills for doing so. This isn’t going to happen.
So what’s the answer?
The North needs to grow its economy so that it does not require ever-increasing funding from the South of England to run its NHS and its schools.
The economics is pretty clear; the best chance of doing this is to focus on removing the barriers to growth in its largest cities. The North needs better transport within its cities and between its cities so that more people can contribute to the economic growth of places like Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle. The North needs to attract and retain the high-skill high-pay jobs that can replace the low-paid industries it hosts today. The North needs to make itself more attractive to talented people, by building more homes, improving schools, and by investing in culture and the environment.
But most importantly the North needs to convince the South of England that it has a plan to do all of the above, that it cannot pay for it itself, and that it represents a better investment for UK money than London. That will require a few stable leaders elected by a large number of people who can demand time in the UK media to state their case and argue the North’s corner.
At the moment there is an offer from the UK government in London. It is an offer that Manchester above anywhere else has taken and embraced. It is acceptable to the South of England’s party, the Conservatives.
The North should now get behind metro mayors, elect powerful ones, and demand that they fight for the investment that we need. Challenge them to be transparent, demand more equality and diversity? Yes, of course. But let’s stop moaning and start making devolution happen: we can and will improve it later.