How can we create an inclusive Council of the North without a cat fight?

Future mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram discussing the north in September 2016. Image: Getty.

The Prime Minister, together with the business secretary and Northern Powerhouse minister, all hurried to Tees Valley on Wednesday to launch its new development corporation. This new body will be an important institution for devolved powers and local economic development – and Tees Valley leaders are to be commended for the exemplary way they have seized the political moment.

But for the government the whole exercise was little more than an attempt to cover the growing embarrassment it is facing in failing to maintain political momentum in the North following the 2015 general election. The timing of the PM’s Tees Valley gathering was clearly designed to deflect or rebalance media coverage of the ‘Transport Summit’ called by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and senior civic and business leaders, which was taking place some 70 miles further south in Leeds.

Riding high on the wave of public opprobrium caused by recent transport announcements and a public petition which is approaching 100,000 signatures, some of the most senior Northern political and business leaders were busy burying local differences in a demonstration of outward solidarity that has been hitherto missing from many Northern Powerhouse debates. Indeed, possibly the most interesting announcement made in the official Summit communique was to form

“…a representative and accountable forum of sectors including political and business leaders, trade unions, voluntary and community sector, and universities to enable the voice of the North of England to be properly and effectively represented on issues of common concern.”

This forum was then dubbed a ‘Council of the North’ in the Greater Manchester mayor’s subsequent tweets. 

Although the communique was only signed by Labour city leaders, the inclusive terms of reference mark a significant departure from the status quo, and a challenge to all those purporting to represent ‘the North’. Clearly the Labour leaders of the North’s big cities finally recognise that, post-referendum, they cannot go it alone. And with hefty membership fees, Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership – and indeed some other business bodies – are too narrow and elitist to be credibly representative and take on this mantle.

Both big cities and big business will necessarily take a leading role – but further thinking must be done as to how such a regional institution could be formed without yesterday’s show of solidarity disintegrating into the familiar cat fight that would let government climb out of the narrow valley it now finds itself in. IPPR North has been encouraging such thinking for some time now.

First, it is relatively straightforward to convene the ‘forum’ described in the summit communique. There are 30-40 bodies who legitimately represent pan-Northern interests in different sectors, some of whom meet multilaterally already.

These need to hold more regular ‘summits’, and will also need a smaller steering group of some kind which can be carefully negotiated at a first meeting. But forum members must commit to three principles:

a) collaboration and transparency, to avoid the duplication and petty competitiveness that currently dogs too much interaction);

b) autonomy: too many ‘Northern’ bodies still look to London HQ for permission to speak;

c) inclusivity: we need a forum which represents the rainbow strengths of its Northern people.

The forum will be accused of being a talking shop. Talking shops, incidentally, like other shops, can be a good thing in and of themselves, especially where there have been none like them before. Keeping costs to a minimum, the forum should ride this criticism, enjoy a wide remit and build the relationships and solidarity that will provide the firm foundations for long-term collaboration and innovation. 

But this isn’t enough. Secondly then, we need a proper Council of the North – a group of democratically elected representatives who can form a decision-making body on a small number of urgent and important matters.

In actual fact, we already have this: it currently meets as the Transport for the North Partnership Board, with 19 constituent members and clear rules for deliberation and decision-making. How hard would it be simply to extend the remit of this body, or, having wrapped up its transport affairs at a morning meeting, then reconvenes in the afternoon under a different name to consider wider matters?

The key question is what, beyond transport, the Council of the North should seek or assume powers to control. After all, many key planks of policy are best delivered at more local levels.

The forum could help define this. But to start with key areas where there would be value in urgent decision-making at pan-northern scale, uit should consider

  • inward investment and trade, particularly as regards Brexit negotiations;
  • innovation and sectoral strengths, particularly as government develops its industrial strategy;
  • energy, where the North holds clear national advantages as regards future, renewable energy systems; and
  • culture, sport and tourism, where the North has always helped shape our national identity.

But there is another sphere in which the North has always had a disproportionate influence on our national polity: our democracy. Whether Peterloo or the Pankhursts, the struggles for a more inclusive modern democracy are naturally born at a distance from the centre. And, in this week’s summit – alongside last year’s referendum – we see the seeds of a new Northern radicalism. 

So thirdly, alongside a forum and a Council of the North, let us put in place a Northern Citizens Assembly, drawn by lot – much like jury service – to meet twice each year, to hold the Council to account, and deliberate the greatest issues of concern amongst the people of the North.

There have been experiments with citizens assemblies in countries such as Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands in recent years, and there’s much to be learned from these. But too often they have been compromised by short-term goals and wider political interference so the North should go one better and establish its assembly on a long-term, independent basis. 

For nearly a century now, the North of England – like other English regions – has looked to London to secure its mandate for action. And in a small meeting room in the Tees Valley yesterday we saw that same pattern replicated once again.

But in Leeds we caught a glimpse of a different future, not ordained by government ministers or sanctioned by parliamentary process. We saw the North reawakening to the fact that we can in fact govern ourselves.

Of course, a century of centralisation will take quite some time to reverse and won’t happen without collaboration with Westminster. This won’t be easy, and we should prepare for principled disagreements. But the North already collaborates effectively across political parties and across its diverse geography in the form of Rail North and Transport for the North.

Now is the moment to create something distinctively Northern that has real institutional clout. Let’s just make sure that it is more than the usual men in suits.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North and tweets as @edcox_ippr.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.