A history of devolution and the North since 1997

This is a companion piece to Options for Regional Devolution in the North, providing more detail on the background to the options set out in that paper.

Devolution during the 1997-2010 Labour governments

In May 1997, after 18 years out of power, the Labour party won an election landslide and immediately introduced proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales, which were put to referenda in September 1997.  In Scotland the proposal for a new Scottish Parliament was comfortably won, 74% to 26%.  In Wales, a new elected Assembly was approved by a whisker: 50.3% to 49.7%.  Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott intended to match this new devolution to Scotland and Wales with devolution to English regions.  In 1998, a referendum on instituting a new London Mayor and London Assembly was won 72% to 28%, with every London borough voting in favour.

In England outside London, John Prescott set up Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and ‘regional chambers’ comprising local councillors and other nominees to prepare regional plans.  Both were on the footprint of the English government office regions set up by the Conservative Government in 1992.  In the North, this meant three RDAs and three chambers covering the North East, the North West and Yorkshire & the Humber. 

Prescott’s intention was that as the RDAs bedded in and started to make good things happen, they would become more widely known, and there would be support for bringing them under the control of an elected regional assembly resembling that of London or Wales.  However, momentum was lost, and Labour’s electoral honeymoon was over by the time he was ready to hold referenda on the idea of elected regional assemblies in the North, in 2004.  Spooked by the Welsh close shave, the referenda for Yorkshire and the North West were delayed, and a referendum was called for the North East only, the region where it was felt there was strongest regional feeling and support for devolution. 

The referendum was a disaster for Prescott.  Given the chance to give the Labour party a bloody nose over something, the North East’s voters chose this issue and, encouraged by an astute campaign masterminded by a young Durham Tory called Dominic Cummings, slaughtered the proposal by 78% to 22%.  With the writing on the wall, Prescott declared the idea of democratic devolution to the North closed for a generation, and the North West and Yorkshire never got their chance to vote.  The unelected chambers and RDAs as central government quangos continued throughout the noughties and various alternatives to an elected regional assembly were toyed with, including a government minister for each region, and Westminster regional committees of MPs. 

However, there was little popular dissent from the North when all the regional institutions – RDAs, regional chambers and government regional offices were abolished by the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.

The story since 2010

Incoming Tory Minister Eric Pickles’s dream was to return to a simpler time when any place in England had its borough Town Hall and its MP at Westminster, with no sub-regional or regional institutions of any kind to water down Westminster’s supremacy.  

Bizarrely, given their previous long commitment to regional devolution in England – much longer than Labour’s – the Lib Dems in government happily supported him in the demolition of the North’s regional institutions as part of the Coalition Agreement.  Lib Dem Minister Vince Cable admitted at one point that the abolition of the relatively popular and effective RDAs in the North (including One North East and Yorkshire Forward) was just unfortunate ‘collateral damage’ from the Lib Dems’ main aim: winning electoral popularity in the South by abolishing the unpopular South East England regional plan, accused of ‘concreting over the countryside’ for new housing. 

However, abolition of the three Northern regions caused little political complaint.  The three regions were never that popular: in the North East, the Tees Valley wanted out of anything dominated by Newcastle, whilst in the North West, Manchester resented having to get its proposals past Scousers or anyone else on North West regional decision-making bodies.  Yorkshire as a region was arguably more popular – except on the south bank of the Humber, where Northern Lincolnshire wanted out. 

Pickles replaced the RDAs with unelected, business-led Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).  These were to be voluntary associations comprising two or more local authorities.  This bottom-up exercise revealed some interesting insights into the geography of sub-regional identity in the North.  Broadly speaking, local authorities re-created the map of the 1974 counties, and the North ended up with a patchwork of 11 LEPs, with in some cases new names and slightly different boundaries (eg Tees Valley instead of Cleveland, Liverpool City Region instead of Merseyside).  In Yorkshire, overlapping LEP areas were created, and places such as Harrogate, Barnsley and the East Riding were members of two different LEPs.

After all the fuss of creating them, LEPs were then given virtually no money and very little to do.  Then, Chancellor George Osborne and his adviser Lord Jim O’Neill came up with his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy.  The idea was a development of John Prescott’s 2004 plan for ‘the Northern Way’ – to create a single, highly-connected single Northern region which would form an economic unit large enough to compete on the world stage, and help ‘rebalance’ the UK economy away from the domination of London. 

The Northern Powerhouse rhetoric struck a chord in the North, and for a while was very popular. The impression of taking action to boost the North was a key part of Osborne’s ‘forty seat strategy’ for winning the 2015 election outright for the Tories, allowing them to dispense with their Lib Dem coalition partners, and enjoy the untrammelled power that the British electoral system grants to the party that wins an outright Commons majority.  To widespread surprise, it worked.  Osborne was re-installed as Chancellor of an outright-majority Tory government and for him, things were looking good.

Unfortunately, to neutralise the new political force UKIP, his political partner David Cameron had promised a referendum on EU membership if the Tories won outright.  His plan had been to dump that promise immediately as part of negotiations with the LibDems for a renewed coalition government.  Instead, he called the Brexit referendum, and the rest is history.

Devolution Deals and Metro Mayors

In addition to the Northern Powerhouse, Osborne and O’Neill’s other policy was the creation of elected ‘Metro Mayors’.  The policy was devised for Greater Manchester, but was soon extended to other city-regions.  Cash-starved local authorities were offered badly needed (if meagre) funding if they would form a combined authority with an elected mayor at its head.  Although described as ‘devolution deals’, the policy was really an experiment in local government.  

The Metro Mayors policy survived the departure of Osborne following the Brexit referendum, and was implemented by the Theresa May government.  The Tories’ calculation was that, although they would be unlikely to win control of an elected city-region council in most cities, they might snatch a Mayoral election with a charismatic local candidate.  Although this approach hasn’t yet paid off in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle or Sheffield, it did pay dividends in Tees Valley – where the Tories came from nowhere to win the election – and in the West Midlands.

The Brexit referendum changed the political landscape and first Theresa May then Boris Johnson stepped in to take advantage.  Osborne and O’Neill’s excessive focus on the big cities created a backlash, and the May then Johnson government’s Towns Fund policy caught the political wave.  Brazenly designed to buy victory in Tory target seats in the North’s towns, it was a great success, and has now created a new breed of Northern Tory MP who can be passed off as a local champion who brings home the bacon from Westminster for his town. 

The threat of withdrawing that same cash is now being used as a means of whipping those MPs into line during difficult votes in parliament, for example in November 2021 over the Owen Paterson corruption affair.     

The situation in late 2021

We are now in a strange situation where we have a strongly centralist Westminster government that is ideologically opposed to the devolution settlements Scotland, Wales and London have, and is actively undermining them.  The North is a muddle of ‘devolution deals’ that create Metro Mayors with few powers and little money to spend. Northern Tory MPs at Westminster want to be personally associated with cash going to their marginal constituencies, and the Conservative government’s electoral strategy is to oblige.  

Meanwhile the North’s economy is stuck in the diplomatic mire of Brexit, going nowhere and sinking slowly.  Emerging from Covid, we are in social welfare emergency with an NHS that is being strangled and carved up for private profit. Amidst widespread poverty, more and more people cannot afford to feed their families or keep their homes warm.   And above all, we are in a climate emergency, with just a handful of years left to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels from our way of life, or risk losing everything.

The Hannah Mitchell Foundation argues that democratic reform and regional devolution is an essential component of any effort to address the North of England’s problems and give us the flourishing region we know we can be.  The companion article to this, Options for regional devolution in the North, sets out some of the most promising possibilities.

2 thoughts on “A history of devolution and the North since 1997

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: