As an elected member of Leeds City Council, the biggest local authority north of Birmingham, discussions of devolution and the northern powerhouse are never too far away.
There are lots of reasons for Labour councillors to be excited about the prospect of regional devolution. It has the potential to provide fiscal devolution which would enable increased spending on public transport and local health services and it would be an opportunity to provide local communities with more influence over what happens to them and their area. But there are also a number of challenges and underlying concerns. Will this just be a token transfer of power from one set of politicians to another? Will the Tories simply use this as a stick to beat Labour councils with and to pin the blame for local cuts squarely on us?
In spite of this, Labour can’t be seen as being afraid of devolution. Instead this is a moment to be bold, to let go and let communities shape the devolved future they want for themselves. Our party leadership and the parliamentary Labour Party can learn a lot from Labour in power in the north. City councils like Leeds and Manchester are finding innovative ways to make social and economic progress in spite of funding shortfalls. Leeds is the UK’s fastest growing economy and that isn’t thanks to George Osbourne, it’s thanks to the Labour council. But it’s vital that any devolution deals that are drawn up are more than just a token displacement of powers. It’s imperative that any movement of power is followed by funding because ultimately, you can’t empower local councils if you impoverish them.
The principle of devolution resonates with a lot of local politicians in the north. We need local solutions to local problems and we’ve known for a long time that Westminster doesn’t have all the answers. It’s great that Westminster heavyweights like Andy Burnham and Luciana Berger want to get stuck into running our northern cities but it’s also important to remember the likes of Judith Blake and Peter Box who are doing this day in day out and rarely get the support or recognition they deserve from our national party or central government.
For the past couple of years, George Osbourne has been talking about the “Northern Powerhouse”. Despite this being a Tory initiative, I’m sure I’m not the only Labour politician, who despite myself, wanted it to succeed. I hoped that this renewed focus on northern England would bring more growth, prosperity and opportunities to our northern cities and give them the chance to control their own destinies. But the truth is that Osbourne has drastically failed to follow rhetoric with action. Labour should defend the idea of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ because in principle it’s something our party should get behind. But we should also hold the Tories to account over their endemic failure to deliver on their promises.
Labour should be arguing for a more ambitious devolution that shapes a new relationship between citizens and the state and redefines the relationship between local and national government. We need to spend more time talking about what we would do with additional funding and powers. For instance, regional devolution has the potential to play a significant role in solving the housing crisis by giving northern cities greater powers and freedoms when it comes to building affordable housing. It’s not good enough for us just to complain that there isn’t enough power or enough money. We need to show that we are the party of the north and we have the answers.
I’ve lived in northern England all my life and I’m very proud of our part of the world. I don’t believe that our part of the country is on the decline and it frustrates me when politicians talk about us like we’re the weak link. Labour shouldn’t see the north as a barrier that we need to overcome on our route to government but one of the strongest branches of our movement and our country. I love our country and I love our part of the country in particular- we need to stop berating the north and utilise it to make our party and our nation stronger.
This essay is based on a speech Alice Smart gave at Yorkshire Young Fabians launch event. You can read the original speech on Alice’s blog.
Image: Matthew Cooper