In Big Issue North 1153, Paul Salveson asked: “Why don’t we just create an alternative Northern Powerhouse partnership that is genuinely inclusive?” Paul accepts George Osborne’s basic Northern Powerhouse argument that, by uniting and working together, the north can be “more than the sum of its parts”. But he rightly criticises the private club for big business and local political bosses that Osborne launched on 16 September as a top down exercise that cannot on its own get us to a better north of England. So what can those of us who agree with Paul Salveson do now?
The devolution dished out to us top down has both a democratic and a geographic deficit. In May 2017, voters in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire and Tees Valley will get the chance to elect a city-region mayor. These mayors will have a mixed bag of powers but, unlike London, their actions will not be scrutinised by elected assemblies, creating a huge democratic deficit.
In London, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, has to go to the London Assembly to account for his actions and decisions. Elected by proportional representation (PR), this means that Sadiq is grilled by Green, Labour, Lib Dem, Tory – and yes, Ukip – elected assembly members, as well as by the public in people’s question time events required by law to be held around London every few months. For the north there will be no PR and no such democratic safeguards.
Meanwhile, there is also a geographic devolution deficit. Firstly, there will now be no elected mayors in West Yorkshire or the North East, and no change of any kind in Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, North Yorkshire or Humberside. Secondly, there are no proposals at all for any democratic institution-building at the level of the north as a whole.
The north is almost bereft of institutions that serve the north as a whole – Big Issue North being one of the few honourable exceptions. The contrast with Scotland is frankly embarrassing. The Scots have their own government, their own parliament with their own political parties, their own cultural and professional institutions, their own media.
It cannot be said often enough that Scotland is going through a political and cultural renaissance that is lively, exciting and full of new ideas and concrete action. The Scottish thinktank Common Weal has now set up a news service and social media platform called Common Space (commonspace.scot). It’s crisp, clear and highly professional, it’s chock-full of information and ideas you can’t get from the mainstream media, and it’s free – or more correctly, “pay as you feel”.
As Paul Salveson says, the challenge to the north is not to look on in envy, but to get on with creating our own version of Scotland’s renaissance. So here’s a proposal: let’s create a space where we can gather together all those who want a better north and want to share ideas and collaborate across the north’s many cities and places to build it. Let’s call it the Northern Umbrella.
Like Scotland’s Common Space, the Northern Umbrella can be many different things at once. Primarily web-based, it would be a news source, a forum for debate and a clearing house for information on events, happenings and projects. But it could also cover physical spaces like clubs and cafés. Everyone participating would have to sign up to some basic shared principles to keep the worst nutters out but in general the code will be unity in diversity and freedom of thinking and speech.
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation’s Andrew Wilson always asks two deceptively simple questions: what great stuff is happening in the north right now? And how do we get more of it? Gathered together under the Northern Umbrella we will be able to find and deliver the answer to both.
William Bolton is a member of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, and wants the north to get its act together like Scotland has