Paul Linford: Is the answer to the English Question a parliament for the North?

The Journal's former political editor says a North East assembly may be out of the question - but there is still a way forward

Durham Council leader Simon Henig
Durham Council leader Simon Henig

The conferences are over, the parties have begun the countdown to next May’s general election, and the UK Independence Party has its first Westminster MP.

But what, in the meantime, has happened to the issue that has been simmering away in the background ever since the Scottish independence referendum a month ago today: the so-called ‘English Question’?

It was clear within hours of David Cameron’s post-referendum announcement of a move towards ‘English Votes for English Laws’ alongside greater powers for the Scottish Parliament that the parties were deeply divided over the subject.

The conferences provided little evidence of fresh thinking on this score, with both Labour and the Lib Dems making clear that greater devolution within England was a higher priority than greater self-determination for England.

So where to go from here? Well, a Journal poll carried out the week before last provided some interesting pointers about views on the ground within the North East.

On the question of whether Scottish MPs at Westminster should be prevented from voting on issues that are devolved in Scotland, as the Prime Minister has suggested, 41% of people in the North-East said yes with 28% against.

But while that may appear to indicate backing for ‘English Votes for English Laws,’ the poll also revealed that more people both nationally and in the North East want regional devolution than want a purely English parliament.

It showed that 51% nationally and 55% in this region wanted powers devolved to the regions, with 29% opposed.

Clearly there are some who are viewing this as an opportunity to reopen the regional assembly debate, despite that other referendum a decade ago next month which saw the idea rejected by a margin of 4-1.

The former Labour MP Hilton Dawson – a veteran of the regional devolution campaign back in the 1990s and early 2000s – put the case forcefully in an article in The Journal earlier this week.

“With proper devolution for North East England we could decide to end unemployment, pay everyone a living wage to do some useful work. We could stop wasting money on 12 disempowered councils for 2.5 million people and invest in improving care,” he wrote, going on to advocate a regional assembly of 43, alongside a reduction in the number of councils in the region from 12 to five, covering Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside, Durham and Northumberland.

It was a neat way of heading off the old argument – so potent back in 2004 – that a regional assembly would simply mean more politicians.

But with none of the main political parties currently inclined to revisit the idea, Mr Dawson and other stalwarts from the old Campaign for the English Regions are currently whistling in the wind.

And rather than talking about the prospects for 43-member assemblies, it would surely be more profitable to look at how powers and funding to be devolved to existing regional political institutions before focusing on new regional structures.

This was, after all, part of the thinking behind the creation of the combined authority covering Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear set up earlier this year.

Although its leader Simon Henig said at the time that it was “too early” to re-open the North East Assembly debate, he was careful not to rule it out for the future.

“It may be that if we are successful with this, we bring people together, we can start to think about it again in the future, but not yet, the time is just not right for that and it would just be a distraction for that,” he said.

The subtext of that was that if the combined authority can prove its effectiveness, there will be a strong case in future for turning it into a directly-elected body.

But there is also a big question as to whether the North East as defined by the boundaries of the old government offices for the regions would still be the most appropriate unit for such a devolved body.

Much governmental action now seems geared towards the economy of the North as a whole, for instance George Osborne’s plans for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ embracing Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

This being the case, a ‘Parliament of the North’ covering the North East, North West and Yorkshire would appear to have more political logic than a regional assembly covering the North East alone.

And the fact that its population would, at 15m, be three times that of devolved Scotland surely only lends weight to that argument.

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