Suggestions that the Northern Powerhouse is running out of steam have been denied by government spokespersons. Yet the removal of George Osborne followed by the resignation of Jim O’Neill from the government have confirmed suspicions that the idea is struggling.
Osborne, now a backbench Tory MP, has launched the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which, we’re told by the ex-Chancellor, will “bring together business and local politicians to commission research, share ideas, and lobby Whitehall to press ahead with devolution”. He added: “I’m so pleased major businesses, civic leaders and others have worked with me to create this new Northern Powerhouse Partnership… Chairing this new partnership will now be a major focus of my political energies. The Northern Powerhouse is here to stay.” It all sounds very Osborne-centric and a classic case of a politician who has fallen from favour finding something else to do. There’s nothing wrong with that but the whole idea of this “partnership” looks very much like an Osborne fan club, with the usual line-up of the great and good. I hope I’m wrong and would be delighted if there was an attempt to recruit a genuine cross-section of northern civil society. But I doubt it.
So the question is – why don’t we create an alternative Northern Powerhouse partnership that is genuinely inclusive? A partnership that represents the North (with a large “N” by the way) in all its creative diversity. Not just “major businesses and civic leaders”, not that I’ve anything against them. It’s just that they don’t, on their own, represent what the North is all about.
It’s an opportunity staring us in the face. Just as Scotland dumped its victim mentality and went for a radical, inclusive idea of Scotland back in the 1980s, Northerners need to do the same and develop our own idea of the North that is dynamic, creative and inclusive. At the heart of that has to be democratic devolution, not the fifth-rate option being foisted on us by the Westminster government, with a few elected mayors who will have less power than the London mayor, without any of his accountability (to the directly elected Greater London Assembly).
We can do it. But it needs a real debate, not just among the select few, be they business leaders, civic dignitaries or academics. It’s a debate that has to reach out into every community – urban, rural, affluent and downtrodden. It has to involve community organisations, trade unions and faith groups. It should develop into a Northern Citizens’ Convention that can build an alternative vision for the North that transcends party loyalties.
We can’t afford to be insular. Instead of seeing Scotland, Wales – and London – as rivals we should be looking at them as friends and allies who can teach us a lot about how to take real devolution forward, learning from their successes and also from their mistakes. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London have their own form of democratic devolution, with each governing body elected by a proportional voting system. Their form of devolution is work in progress but a good beginning has been made and nobody wants to go back to centralised Westminster rule.
In our case, we aren’t even at the starting post. If anyone suggests that the elected mayor approach has anything democratic about it, they’re kidding themselves. It’s being foisted on us, and is likely to be an unaccountable (albeit powerful) role that will be dependent on the goodwill of the constituent local authorities. It’s far less democratic than the former metropolitan county councils
abolished by Thatcher in the 1980s.
A Northern Powerhouse has got to be a democratic powerhouse. How we shape that needs a real debate, not an elitist solution imposed on us from above. Could Big Issue North champion the cause? If you’re interested email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @NorthrnNetwork.
Paul Salveson is a member of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation which campaigns for devolution to the north