How devolution could be England’s velvet revolution

By Pieter Cranenbroek

Devolution from Westminster

This September Scotland will finally have a chance to decide whether it wants to keep or leave the Union in its referendum on independence.

In recent years, more and more power has been devolved to Scotland and Wales, whereas the English question has been largely ignored. But in a time of political disillusionment and an increasingly dominant capital, devolution to its regions might be exactly what England needs.

The Blair government established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in the 1990s, but devolving power to England’s regions has barely been discussed. It is, of course, not difficult to see why. Scottish nationalists, and to a much lesser extent Welsh people, have voiced a desire for more autonomy for years, but where are the English going to go? A substantial devolution of power from Westminster to city regions would be beneficial to the whole of England: politically, economically, and socially.

More power to the regions would bring politics closer to the people. A powerful regional government encourages the electorate to go to the ballot box because these politicians can offer people a policy that is specifically tailored to their region. With an increased mandate and more financial firepower, politicians at the city-region level are bound to achieve more than they ever could in London-obsessed Whitehall. Moreover, if their elected representatives fail to live up to their promises, they won’t be able to hide in their London offices; they will be behind their desk in town hall, on your city’s main square.

Economically, stronger regions could challenge the London monopoly and decrease England’s dependency on the south east. Osborne hails Britain’s economic growth and presents GDP figures as proof of a national recovery without mentioning that London alone accounted for nearly 80 per cent of job growth in the private sector. Britain’s next nine largest cities together had a ten per cent piece of the new private sector job pie. There is London and there is the rest of England.

Apart from London, Manchester is said to be the only area in England to attract young people from other regions to its economy. Part of this trend has been caused by the city’s increased co-operation with ten different local authorities since 2011. Coordinating a joint strategy to help foster Manchester’s wider economic area is already paying off, despite limited political power and financial resources. Imagine what could happen if the hands of local authorities would no longer be tied.

The key to successful devolution would therefore lie in close co-operation between the various regional governments. Instead of dividing England into different islands, regional bodies should join forces to make the most of these delegated powers. Accordingly, the Spatial Economics Research Centre has calculated that if travel time between Manchester and Leeds would be reduced by 20 minutes, it could contribute £6.7 billion to the economy of Northern England. If more regional governments teamed up and had the means to, for example, develop a transport infrastructure comparable to London’s, then overall productivity would soar and Britain’s dependency on the capital would be significantly reduced.

Socially, more powerful economies in other English regions will considerably decrease the current brain drain of people to the south east. England might break free from the vicious circle of bright, young English people moving to London out of necessity and London thriving as a consequence. With a less powerful centre and stronger regions, local youth will be able to stay and help their city develop rather than they being pushed away due to a lack of job opportunities.

Furthermore, it is no longer possible to say that devolution in England is an issue that does not live among the English people. A recent poll showed that there is broad support for decentralisation as 65 per cent of voters believe that England is currently too centralised. This figure is even higher among Labour (78 per cent), Liberal Democrat (72 per cent), and UKIP supporters (71 per cent). The poll further indicated that half of the voters believe that more economic powers to local or regional authorities would be beneficial for the development of local economies while devolvers outnumber centralisers in every socio-economic group.

As one of the most centralised countries in the world, Britain is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to having so much political power reside in the capital. Many European countries have been pushing power away from the centre after the Second World War and globalisation processes have effectively eliminated the last shred of the nineteenth century nation states. The idea of ruling a unitary nation from a powerful capital is no longer valid in the twenty-first century and England would do well in empowering its regions as well.

Devolution could be England’s Velvet Revolution. It could increase political engagement, decrease the country’s unhealthy dependency on London and preserve talented local youth for their regions. Closely co-operating regional bodies could integrate England more than Whitehall is ever likely to achieve. Regardless of whether or not it will still include Scotland in the future, Team Britain needs to stop sacrificing all of its players for the one player that has become bigger than the team. The best way to do this is giving more responsibility to the other players.

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