Councils want to be in the region of power, says Roger Ratcliffe
The way things are heading, in decades to come we may require a passport to enter Pontefract or a visa for the Vale of Pickering. Leeds might have an embassy just around the corner from Manchester Town Hall. There’ll be a Hull chargé d’affaires behind Blackpool’s Golden Mile, and perhaps even a Crumpsall consulate in Cleckheaton.
In our increasingly Disunited Kingdom, Scotland’s onward march to the exit door has put devolution in the English regions on the political agenda, and who knows where it’ll end? That great old Ealing comedy, Passport to Pimlico, highlighted our propensity for building little Ruritanias, given the chance, and the temptation of counties, towns and cities to become self-governing statelets is the admittedly skewed vision I have of the future.
My point is, the nationalism genie that has escaped from a bottle of Scotch is now drifting across England and being inhaled by every councillor who’s ever felt frustrated by their inability to exercise authority beyond deciding the colour of wheelie bins or tightening up on local dog fouling regulations. Huzzah! Now they see the potential for more devolved power so spectacularly demonstrated north of the border.
Okay, a passport to Pontefract is unlikely to happen, but it hasn’t taken many councillors long to realise that what’s good enough for Linlithgow should be good enough for Liverpool. Thus we have had the leaders of 10 UK cities – which besides Liverpool include Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester – setting themselves up as the Core Cities Group and demanding more power for each over planning, transport, homes, schools and health, not to mention more power to raise money. Then there’s Manchester’s proposed new elected mayor, the so-called Devo Manc route to controlling a £1 billion budget in the city instead of at Westminster.
This us-too mentality is understandable if you know anything about the egos of many of those who put themselves up for council elections. As a journalist who spent years reporting the meetings of several local authorities it seemed to me that power was the councillors’ payback for sitting through all those dreary sub-committees, and I would guess that no power tastes sweeter than complete control.
If the 5.3 million people of Scotland can exercise increasing power over their affairs, I’ve heard it said, then the 5.3 million people who live in the Yorkshire and Humber region should do the same.
If so much spending and decision-making is farmed out to the regions, as seems certain to happen, then why will we need so many MPs at Westminster? Isn’t it logical that their numbers be drastically culled? Otherwise we are going to end up with more bureaucracy, more politics and more unnecessary interference in our lives simply because those who eat, drink, breathe and sleep politics see devolution as the big idea of the 21st century.
Ten years ago there wasn’t a huge public campaign to demand an independent Scotland. It has been entirely created by SNP politicians. And like feeding pigeons, the more concessions they have managed to wring out of Westminster the more they have demanded.
I would expect the same thing to happen once English regions get more power. Fifty years from now, will anyone really know if they are British, English, Lancastrian or Leedsonian?
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight Team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe