Earlier this week, I attended a conference of newspaper editors which, among other things, looked at the question of how local and regional papers should respond to the government’s plans for English devolution.
In essence, the discussion boiled down to question of how newspapers should react to the government’s insistence on linking devolved powers to the introduction of elected mayors.
Should they get behind the government’s plans to give areas such as Yorkshire and the North East major new spending powers on the grounds of the huge economic benefits potentially on offer?
Or should they side with the prevailing tide of public opinion on their patches, which has seen elected mayors repeatedly rejected in local referenda and which remains deeply sceptical?
The question could equally be asked of local politicians. Is it their job to work with government to achieve the best economic outcomes for their areas – if necessary setting aside their own personal prejudices - or is it simply to represent the views of their local electors?
Well, both are perfectly respectable arguments – and in the context of the debate over whether the North-East should now agree to a mayoral structure, both have been well-aired in The Journal over recent weeks.
Graham Robb, the former Tory press spokesman for the region now heading the North East Institute of Directors, has argued that the mayoral issue was decisively settled by the General Election, and accused Labour politicians of “wasting time” by continuing to attempt to negotiate over it
He said: “It is absolutely certain that any extra powers or money must be accompanied by the acceptance of an elected mayor. It was in the Conservative manifesto and, just as I would have expected a Labour Government to introduce a 50p tax rate, Labour politicians in the region should expect the Conservatives to introduce Metro Mayors.”
Thus far, though, the North East Combined Authority has continued to resist the idea, with its leader Simon Henig insisting it could only be introduced following a regional referendum.
Support for that view was offered this week by Thom Brooks, Professor of Law and Government at Durham University, who believes that any move towards a mayoral structure would need to be approved by the voters rather than imposed by Whitehall as part and parcel of any devolution deal.
“I agree with Simon Henig that the people in each region should get a vote on whether or not they want an elected mayor with these powers. If elected mayors are worth having, then let’s see the full plan for devolved powers and budgetary control followed by a vote,” he wrote.
For my part, I have to say I agree. A form of devolution in which Westminster determines the system of devolved governance rather than allowing local people to decide what it should be seems to me to be a straight contradiction in terms.
The argument will doubtless run and run, but meanwhile, the question of just how serious the government is about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was thrown into sharp relief by its decision to shelve two major rail projects this week.
Electrification of the TransPennine Express and Midland Mainline routes are seen as vital to improving the rail connectivity within the Northern regions and there was widespread dismay at the news that they are being put on hold.
Among those who slammed the move were the erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who said: “This runs totally against the schemes I promoted in Government, which were designed to increase connectivity between Northern cities.”
Chris Hearld, Partner and Northern Chairman at KPMG, said: “Transport connectivity is the number one issue facing the future of the Northern Powerhouse initiative. Any delay to improvements is regrettable.”
It is, in large part, the prospect of the Northern regions being given powers over future transport spending that is driving the current upsurge in interest in regional devolution. Just as the lack of such powers were the biggest reason why the 2004 North East Assembly referendum was lost, their inclusion in a new devolution settlement is the biggest reason why it may gain greater public acceptance this time round.
But to my mind, this only strengthens the logic of Thom Brooks’ argument that the issue should once again be put to a regional referendum.
After all, if the case for extra powers plus a ‘Metro Mayor’ is so strong, then what on earth does the government have to fear by allowing it to be put to the vote?