What did devolution ever do for us?

Over Christmas, a journalist asked me what would be the big political issue for 2022. 

Let’s separate out the political theatre.  Boris Johnson is on the ropes.  Will Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak replace him?  Who will wield the knife?  Yada, yada.  It might seem surprising, but I don’t really care who is Prime Minister.  Not as an end in itself, anyway.  I’m far more interested in what Governments actually do. 

Over two years ago the Conservative election manifesto promised to “level up” every part of the UK (page 26).  What does that mean?    

Page 29 said, “This is an agenda which shows that the days of Whitehall knows best are over.  We will give towns, cities and communities of all sizes across the UK real power and real investment to drive the growth and the future and unleash their full potential.”  And “We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year” i.e. 2020.  It’s now 2022, and still no White Paper on English Devolution.  

There may be a “Levelling Up” White Paper out this month.  There’s certainly a lot of talk about it.  Whether it delivers what’s promised is a different matter.  The same manifesto promised “We will build Northern Powerhouse Rail” (p27).  That promise was broken in the recent (Dis)Integrated Rail Plan.  Mind you, in September they broke their headline promise that “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance” (p2), with the National Insurance increases.   

There has been a pandemic.  I’ll understate the obvious and say that has been a serious distraction.  But it’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ pass for the Government. 

I’d only been mayor for ten months, and still building a brand new Combined Authority team, when lockdown happened.  It hasn’t stopped us from smashing our targets.  Creating thousands of jobs.  Training tens of thousands of people in new skills.  Implementing our Green New Deal.  It hasn’t stopped me delivering over half of my manifesto, despite being only half way through my term of office.   

So for me, this year’s big issue is: will we in the North East get the level of independence we need to secure our own future?  I will agree with the Tory manifesto on one thing: if we leave decision making in Whitehall, the North East will continue to miss out. 

I’ve been working behind the scenes, and advocating publicly, for wider North East devolution since I was elected in May 2019.  We need to speak with one voice. 

Decision making has to reside at the right level.  To quote Plato, “we must carve nature at the joints.”  International law and war crimes should reside with the UN and International Criminal Court.  Foreign policy should be the responsibility of national Government.  Income and corporation tax should also be national, to prevent a race to the bottom. 

Economic development, though, works best at the functional economic area.  In most places, that’s the conurbation and its rural hinterland.  Buses, metros, trams and local rail work best at the city region level, simply because 80% of all journeys occur on that geography. 

I’ve heard rumours that the latest draft of the White Paper proposes the creation of a statutory levelling-up quango. That’s precisely what we don’t need – another layer of government in Westminster to oversee the de-layering of government.

What we do need is the devolved power to make our own decisions in the North.

Devolution needs to be a constant work-in-progress, though, not a tick box exercise.

You remember the Monty Python sketch, “what have the Romans ever done for us?”  I’m asking what will devolution do for us?

Devolution means good jobs – proper, career-level jobs.

Paying higher-than-average wages.

Eliminating unemployment.

Affordable housing.

Improving our already-thriving cultural scene.

Decarbonising our economy and restoring biodiversity.

Faster and more reliable public transport. 

Creating a region – economic and cultural – that means our young people want to stay and make their lives here.

And significant financial independence, meaning that money generated in the region stays in the region.

If we can get all that, I don’t really care which Tory MP replaces Boris Johnson. 

*Originally published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 3 Jan 2022