Can summit on devolving more powers to the regions achieve anything?

Core Cities group which includes Newcastle will lay out ambitious plans for change

The Quayside at Newcastle and Gateshead
The Quayside at Newcastle and Gateshead

It was 10 years ago last November that John Prescott, not averse to throwing a punch himself on the hustings, ended up with a severely bloodied nose delivered not by a cheesed off member of the public but the North East as a whole.

When asked whether it wanted a regional assembly in a referendum, the people voted emphatically “no” by 696,519 votes to 197,310 - a 78% to 22% thumping.

While straw clutchers might have pointed out the turn out was just 48% in the all-postal ballot, Mr Prescott, who had championed the policy, was more realistic and didn’t try to sugar coat the result.

“It was an overwhelming defeat for the proposal put before the North East public,” he said at the time. “As a government we believe in letting the people have their say.”

The opposition parties couldn’t conceal their glee. The attempt to devolve power to the regions was stymied by suggestions it would mean more politicians and greater taxes to fund what was perceived as an unneeded and expensive extra layer of bureaucracy.

Back then ‘devolution’ appeared to be, politically speaking, a dirty word, the pipe dream of a minority of over zealous Scottish and Welsh nationalists and an assortment of regional obsessives in England with a chip on their shoulder about London.

Yet fast forward 11 years and when the Core Cities UK group, made up of almost entirely Labour-run councils, including Newcastle, talk of a summit meeting on devolving more power to the regions, national politicians take it seriously.

In recent months the Core Cities group has regularly shared a platform with Chancellor George Osborne on the back of his Northern Powerhouse pronouncements.

Anthony Devlin/PA Wire Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne
 

So why the change? The Scottish referendum played its part, both in the spirit of independence it conjured, and the promises made to the Scottish people to persuade them to vote to stay in the United Kingdom.

Now the regions of England are demanding more and it offers the North East a great opportunity according to Jonathan Walker, head of member relations at the North East Chamber of Commerce.

He said: “It’s absolutely positive that the prospect of greater devolution and responsibility to the North East is on the table and we’re really pleased it’s entered into the discussion politically and is part of the ongoing conversation.

“It’s really important the politicians are starting to talk about this after so many years of the North East being overlooked.”

The announcement of the summit was made after a Cabinet meeting of the Core Cities group in Leeds yesterday.

Speaking after it, Leeds city council leader Coun Keith Wakefield outlined the importance to everyone involved.

He said: “Real and meaningful devolution is the key to transforming the economies of our cities and wider regions, opening up opportunities and improving the lives of millions of people as well as bringing about a much-needed rebalancing and strengthening of the national economy.

“The summit will discuss the issues around devolution and will hopefully demonstrate what it will mean for people in real terms, so we are all very much looking forward to it.”

The fact that talk of devolution in England is on the cards is shown by the much higher profile of the Core Cities group.

It might comes as a surprise that the group was formed 20 years ago, in 1995, as a partnership of eight city councils: Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, and Sheffield.

It has a wide range of interests, encompassing transport and connectivity, innovation and business support, skills and employment, sustainable communities, culture and creative industries, climate change, finance and industry, and governance.

The summit is to take place next month in Glasgow and has been timed to coincide with the launch of the Smith Commission into devolution to Scotland, and to influence politicians ahead of the general election.

Not that the politicians seem to need much convincing.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin (fifth left) and Prime Minister David Cameron, with city representatives (left to right), Liverpool: Ged Fitzgerald, Sheffield: Cllr Julie Dore, Glasgow: Cllr Gordon Matheson, Birmingham: Sir Albert Bore, Bristol: Cllr Helen Holland, Leeds: Cllr James Lewis, Manchester: Sir Richard Leese, Nottingham: Cllr Jon Collins, Newcastle: Cllr Nick Forbes and Edinburgh: Ewan Kennedy, outside 10 Downing Street, London, after a meeting with the Prime Minister, to pledge their backing for the £50 billion HS2 high-speed rail project
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin (fifth left) and Prime Minister David Cameron, with city representatives (left to right), Liverpool: Ged Fitzgerald, Sheffield: Cllr Julie Dore, Glasgow: Cllr Gordon Matheson, Birmingham: Sir Albert Bore, Bristol: Cllr Helen Holland, Leeds: Cllr James Lewis, Manchester: Sir Richard Leese, Nottingham: Cllr Jon Collins, Newcastle: Cllr Nick Forbes and Edinburgh: Ewan Kennedy, outside 10 Downing Street, London, after a meeting with the Prime Minister, to pledge their backing for the £50 billion HS2 high-speed rail project
 

Mr Walker added: “All the major parties are talking about devolving powers. Not all have the same idea as to how the should go about it.”

One of the driving forces being the Core Cities and perhaps its figurehead is the leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese.

He said: “City devolution is one of the key political issues of our times and our summit is a fantastic chance to find out more about the growing movement to give our cities the freedoms they need and deserve. All the political parties must make this a major manifesto commitment.

“Our cities have made great strides in the last two decades, but they could do so much more. Between us, we deliver 28% of the combined economic output of England, Wales and Scotland, and are home to almost 19 million people.”

In Manchester all the major parties have got behind the Core Cities initiative and its leaders have shown themselves capable of handling greater powers. This is something Mr Walker feels might not have happened here yet.

He said while the North East has a Combined Authority, it has yet to display quite the same unity of purpose.

However, Mr Walker thinks there are signs of this coming about.

“The Combined Authority is relatively new but it has started to make some inroads in transport in particular.”

But what sort of powers does the NECC envisage will benefit the region?

Mr Walker said: “What we would like to see is the kind of decisions being taken to local level in making sure the provision of education and skills will be based on local needs, and to attract new businesses and foreign investment.”

The summit will also see the launch of a ‘Charter for Local Freedom’ that will set out the powers and freedoms cities, towns and other places will demand from whoever makes up the next Government, the charter is designed to be a 21st century version of the Magna Carta which is 800 years old in June this year.

And a new report from leading think tank ResPublica which aims to set out a ‘roadmap’ for devolution to cities and their regions, to deliver radical and ambitious change to benefit local people and economies.

Sir Richard detailed what the Core Cities could achieve if given greater independence.

He said: “Independent forecasts demonstrate that the eight English Core Cities alone could generate an extra £222bn and 1.3m jobs for the country by 2030.

“That’s the equivalent of adding the entire economy of Denmark to UK plc. With Glasgow and Cardiff on side we could achieve even more. I’d urge anyone interested in city devolution and the future of the UK to attend our summit and hear more about how devolution can help create jobs, build homes and change lives.”

North East councillors with the Rt Hon William Hague MP
North East councillors with the Rt Hon William Hague MP

Philip Blond, Director of ResPublica, added: “We are on the cusp of an historic change - only full devolution to Britain’s cities, councils and communities can address the vast and growing imbalance between London and the South East and the rest of the UK’s cities and regions. “

“The Scottish referendum ignited people’s desire for change - the only hope for the wholesale transformation of our largest cities is to devolve to them, allowing them once more to grow and compete on a global level.”

The members of the Core Cities feel they have political momentum behind them.

It has timed the summit for the political parties to include at least some of their proposals in the manifestos for the forthcoming general election.

According to an insider at the group: “The big idea is that we don’t believe that a civil servant behind a desk in Whitehall knows what’s best for someone in Newcastle.

“All major parties have manifesto commitments but we need to keep he pressure on them to deliver within days of being elected.”

Meanwhile, the leader of Newcastle City Council, Coun Nick Forbes, added: “The devolution juggernaut is now moving at an unstoppable pace, and this summit is yet more evidence of that.

“Devolution and the freedoms to allow towns and cities to retain much more of their taxation and make important decisions at a local level is an economic imperative if we are to rebalance and strengthen the economy.

“The summit will provide fresh opportunities to explore how devolution can work on the ground to make a real difference to people’s lives.”

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