George Osborne offered one vision of devolution – but One Yorkshire wants another

Yorkshire: site of the battle for devolution’s soul. Image: Getty.

All eyes are now on Yorkshire. As the government’s devolution programme runs out of steam, England’s largest county has become the battleground for competing visions of what a devolved England might look like.

On one hand is a vision of devolution based on the big cities like Sheffield and Leeds; on the other, is the ‘One Yorkshire’ vision, where power is devolved to the larger regional scale to create a more inclusive form of development that addresses the needs and aspirations of communities beyond the big cities.

What is at stake in this debate?

Shortly after the 2015 General Election, building on his earlier launch of the Northern Powerhouse, the thenn Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, proclaimed his ambition to roll-out devolution across England by creating “metro mayors” for England’s biggest cities. Speaking in Manchester, Osborne was clear that the refusal to introduce a metro mayor would preclude the devolution of power from Westminster.

The location for the speech was significant. For Osborne, Manchester presented a successful model of economic development; he had already secured the agreement of council leaders there to introduce a metro mayor, an arrangement dubbed “Devo Manc”.

In his speech, Osborne asserted that his was “a vision based on the solid economic theory”, arguing that, “There is a powerful correlation between city size and the productivity of its inhabitants.” Metro mayors, governing an entire metropolitan region, were crucial to unlocking economic growth, he claimed.

Osborne was echoing the idea that Britain’s cities have been held back by land-use planning restrictions. and because too much policy attention has been wasted on places that will never have the dynamism of big cities. Allowing market forces freer rein would accelerate their growth based on tech clusters and the attraction of knowledge workers, principally by facilitating the increased supply of housing.

Metro mayors, in other words, would be dealmakers focused on attracting property investors. These views gained strong backing from thinktanks such as the (London-based) Centre for Cities, and initiatives such as the City Growth Commission, led by Osborne’s ally, Lord Jim O’Neill.

The theory is not without merit – but its limits are now apparent and, since Osborne left the stage, fresh ideas have emerged to challenge the Whitehall orthodoxy.

The rethinking begins with the 2016 Brexit referendum result, which has been widely interpreted as pitching north against south and big cities against towns. Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the LSE suggests we should understand Brexit as an instance of “revenge of the places that don’t matter”: the struggling mill towns, declining coastal resorts and former coalfields that have been largely untouched by the growth in big cities.


In England, the neglect of these places has led to the accumulation of social, economic and political problems for the whole of society. Expecting people in these places to move to big cities is unrealistic and unreasonable – not just because it is unaffordable but because it requires them to abandon the strong community networks they rely upon.

Moreover, multiplying towers of glass and steel and cranes on the skyline offer a narrow vison of development. They contribute to short-term improvements in indicators such as GDP and benefit property owners, but also generate increased inequality within and between places, excluding those who cannot get on the housing ladder because they are trapped in low paid jobs.

Labour MP Rachel Reeves has called for a stronger focus on the ‘Everyday Economy’, those sectors that impact of the lives of people away from the tech hubs and luxury flats. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown how reliable and affordable local bus services are crucial to the economic development of disadvantaged places; and improving bus services requires institutional and regulatory changes best achieved at the regional scale. As the Centre for Towns has shown, tackling problems of ageing and ill-health are among the pressing problems in disadvantaged places. Rebuilding material and civic infrastructure – the ‘foundational economy’ – in local communities is a key political task.

New research suggests that large cities are not always the most dynamic engines of growth, and that some smaller and medium-sized cities and rural areas have outperformed them. The OECD cautions against focusing only on “core cities”, identifying “agglomeration costs” such as problems of housing affordability, infrastructure shortages and rising pollution and congestion. It advocates the benefits of well-connected regions of rural communities and networks of smaller, networked cities. Even highly disadvantaged communities contain assets and networks that could become the focus of development.

The idea that economic development can be left solely to market forces is the root of many of our problems, but still grips many of our political leaders. Part of the argument for One Yorkshire concerns the strength of its identity. Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, has dismissed the idea of One Yorkshire as based on “nostalgia, not economic reality,” while Lord O’Neill has rejected it as “chest-beating slogans”. But Yorkshire identity cannot be denied, nor can it be trumped by appeals to an economic model that does not deliver for enough people. The Sheffield Citizens’ Assembly showed a clear preference for a Yorkshire scale of government. 

Yorkshire identity is not just a potentially powerful international brand but represents civic capital and the basis for a shared collective project. Bavarian identity, expressed among other ways through its powerful state parliament, does not appear to have prevented Munich from becoming one of the world’s most prosperous and liveable cities. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, states that a sense of identity, as much as price signals, shapes our economic decision-making. It can underpin a sense of common purpose and influences behaviour in ways that conventional economists overlook.

Luxury flats and high-end offices in city centres are insufficient to raise living standards in the regions. Leeds City Council’s decision to develop an inclusive growth strategy is a recognition of this. One Yorkshire is also a response to the weaknesses of developer-led, city-centric policies.

This is not to deny that cities are important, but rather to suggest the regional scale is able to address links between dynamic places and their hinterlands, smaller cities, towns and coastal and rural areas. The appeal of One Yorkshire lies in its promise a more holistic, integrated and inclusive economic and social vision for the region. It remains to be seen which vision of devolution will triumph, but the choices are clear.

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University College London.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.