Options for regional devolution in the North

The Hannah Mitchell Foundation researches and campaigns for democratic devolution to the North of England.  But what does devolution mean and what form of change best suits the North? 

Regional history and identity has always been very much a motivating force in HMF’s campaign for devolution.  Nevertheless, when the HMF was originally founded ten years ago, in some respects devolution could be treated almost as a technical question about improving public services and making them more democratic and responsive to the North’s needs. 

Now, since Austerity, Brexit and Boris Johnson, things have got much more fundamental.  Scotland may well soon opt for independence, and the traditional British unwritten rulebook of democratic good conduct has been well and truly torn up by the Johnson government, if such a thing is possible. 

Discussion of Northern regional devolution must now be linked to the wider debate on the need to reform or replace the United Kingdom’s failing constitution and nakedly corrupt Westminster parliament.  The North needs to get involved in that debate now, because if the region does not take steps to define its own democratic rights and fight for them, its future will be determined by what happens elsewhere, including in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. 

The purpose of this piece is to try and define the North’s options in order to inform that debate.  The companion piece to this, A history of devolution and the North since 1997, tells the story of the relationship between the Westminster government and the North in the last quarter century in more detail than can be fitted in here. 

Scoping the options

There are options for the level of devolved powers, and options for the geography of devolution in the North.  In the list below, the options range from the status quo, via models of devolution resembling those already existing in Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man, to the most radical option of all, full independence. 

Options for level of devolved powers over policy, spending and taxation

  1. Existing ‘devolution deals’: essentially barely devolution at all, with little freedom of action or control over the purse strings.   
  2. ‘Prescott model’ – an elected assembly with powers over economic/industrial strategy, planning and transport strategy, and tourism. 
  3. ‘Wales model’ – an elected assembly or senate with powers over education, health, environment, agriculture, energy, major roads, railways, local government funding.
  4. ‘Scotland model’ – an elected parliament with powers broadly as Wales plus some discretion to borrow money and levy additional taxes compared to UK.
  5. ‘Isle of Man model’ – full discretion over taxation and finance, and almost all areas of government except defence, foreign affairs.
  6. ‘SNP model’ – an independent state inside or outside the EU: the ’Republic of Northumbria’.

Options for geography

  1. An elected assembly for the North as a whole.
  2. The ‘Prescott model’ of three regions: North West, North East, Yorkshire.
  3. The ‘Metro Mayors model’ of eleven Northern sub-regions: Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, North East, Tees Valley, North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, East Yorkshire. 
  4. Some mixture of the above, or alternative geographies.

In any of these options, the existing structure of local government could be left as it is now, or it could be reformed by (for example) reviving smaller town and rural district councils.

Formulating the options

To avoid there being an unmanageably large number of options to consider, it is proposed that HMF calls for a debate on the following options:

Option 1: Westminster + strengthened Metro Mayors

This is basically the option supported by Andy Burnham.  Metro Mayors would be created everywhere and more powers would be devolved to them.  This could include new powers to borrow money to finance projects and more powers over the transport, health/social care and education systems, for example.  There would be no elected regional tier between the sub-regional Metro Mayors and Westminster, although the Metro Mayors would voluntarily collaborate with each other at the regional scale.  Under the existing ‘Combined Authority’ system, the directly elected Metro Mayor is scrutinised only by existing district council leaders and councillors.  This could be retained, or it could be reformed so that the Mayor’s actions were scrutinised by a specially elected assembly, as is the case in London.  This model would leave Westminster largely untouched.  It could be pursued irrespective of whether Scotland stayed in the UK or went independent. 

Option 2: Three regional parliaments

In this option, there would be three regional assemblies or parliaments in the North: one for each of Yorkshire, the North East and the North West.  The powers devolved to these assemblies could be similar to those currently devolved to the Welsh Senedd and Welsh Government.  (It is worth noting that the population the North East is almost the same as that of Wales, the population Yorkshire is about the same as that of Scotland, and the North West at 7 million is bigger than any of them.)  An executive or government would be formed, headed by a First Minister with a similar status to that of Nicola Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, and its activities scrutinised by the assembly.  This option would work best if all of England was divided up into regions of population around 3-7 million.  It would suit a federal UK, but could still make sense whether Scotland stayed in the UK or went independent. 

Option 3: One Northern Parliament with county-regions

In this option, there would be just one regional assembly/parliament and government with First Minister covering the whole North of England.  The powers devolved to it would mirror those devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  Below that level there would be a structure of traditional counties and independent big cities with powerful mayors.  However, all mayors would be scrutinised by elected councillors.  This option could suit a situation of a federal UK with England being broken up into (say) just four or five big regions, but could perhaps also work if the rest of England decided it didn’t want regional devolution at all.     

Option 4: Independent Republic of Northumbria

This option is a new one advocated by the Northern Independence Party.  It probably only makes sense in the scenario of the break-up of the UK, with both Scotland and Wales going independent.  In these circumstances, the North of England would need to decide between being completely dominated electorally by the South, or going its own way and claiming its own sovereignty.  The sovereign, independent Northumbria could then voluntarily enter sovereignty-pooling arrangements such as the European Economic Area or the European Union, regardless of what the rest of England wanted to do.  So, an independent Northumbria could actually be less internationally isolated than it is under its current status as a part of Brexit Britain.  

Next steps

Although this list is not exhaustive, it is proposed that HMF moves forward by focusing on raising the profile of these four options, working up the detail of how they would be implemented, and stimulating debate across the region on their pros and cons.

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