Hull North MP Diana Johnson has had the article below published in the Hull Daily Mail today (4 November 2015). It can also be read at http://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/Hull-Northern-Powerhouse-worth-Diana-Johnson-MP/story-28111942-detail/story.html.
Two years ago, The Economist magazine described Hull as one of the country’s “decaying” former industrial heartlands.
In their view, Hull was “failing” because the state had been doing too much. Decades of neglect - while more favoured areas surged ahead – was not the problem.
Although sometimes giving mixed signals, Ministers now appear to reject this extreme free market view that places like Hull should be abandoned by government - and by local people seeking skilled, better paid work.
Instead, they accept the evidence that regeneration of the North would raise overall national economic growth - essential to eliminating both deficit and debt - and that devolution can help in achieving this.
The Conservative grandee Lord Heseltine set out this case in his influential 2012 report ‘No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth’.
This is the backdrop to the Government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill as it goes through Parliament, and whilst we wait to see what further City Deals the Chancellor will announce in his Autumn Statement on 25 November.
For me the test is whether rhetoric about ‘rebalancing the economy’ and devolution is matched by deeds.
I have specific concerns about what’s going on.
Firstly, powers that Ministers are prepared to devolve to English regions are conditional on accepting a single model of local governance – elected mayors.
This ‘Made in Whitehall’ model is being spread through backroom deals, rather than through consulting communities - including in areas where voters previously rejected elected mayors.
This ‘one size fits all’ approach ignores local factors and geography. What may work within Greater Manchester’s clear boundaries may not work for the Hull and Humber area.
We’re seeing a combination of Henry Ford’s ‘any colour, providing it’s black’’ and Douglas Jay’s confidence that “the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.”
Real devolution would not be imposed top-down from the centre, but would ask locally elected leaders to be accountable to local voters for decisions made locally - not to Whitehall or its distant quangos. Power and responsibility would be transferred largely from Whitehall – not taken from the grassroots.
Above all, devolution needs clear objectives and should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
There’s been little clarity on this from Ministers.
In my view, devolution must give local people influence, underpin efficient public services and, above all, boost regeneration and the ability to protect and create local jobs.
Political structures should reflect local factors.
Instead, we currently have the worst of all worlds – piecemeal change, secretive horse-trading, and only one available path towards a vague destination.
Secondly, this devolution comes against a backdrop of severe and ongoing funding cuts since 2010, focussed most heavily on the most deprived areas.
We could end up with blame being devolved more than power.
Devolved decision-making requires fairer funding and local revenue raising powers, free from out-dated Treasury rules, and the ability to raise investment for infrastructure – such as for transport, flood defences and social housing.
It means local freedom to innovate and get better results than if powers remained in Whitehall.
George Osborne’s plan to localise business rates is potentially progressive, but must apply to areas without elected mayors too. It must ensure that councils in poorer areas don’t lose out - as we have in Government grant distribution since 2010 – nor face increased borrowing costs.
Local work to build enterprise and prosperity must not further entrench inequality between wealthy areas and the rest.
Thirdly, in the digital age there are fewer excuses not to devolve more Whitehall jobs to the regions – if devolution is serious. Ministers are suspiciously quiet on this.
Fourthly, although local innovation in public services can help to raise national standards, we risk NHS fragmentation damaging patient services.
Fifthly, I am concerned about recent events as they effect Hull.
Civic and business figures across Yorkshire have been jumping through hoops to satisfy arbitrary deadlines for meeting Whitehall requirements.
However, despite having Humber regeneration in common with Hull, South Bank authorities also have much in common with the rest of Lincolnshire.
Hull also has some common interests with North and West Yorkshire, tourism for example, but will that be enough to hold together such a large area that would have a population almost the size of Scotland’s?
Would Hull people feel much closer to an elected mayor based 60 miles away than they do to Ministers in SW1?
Hull is not one of the self-selecting ‘Core Cities’ on the inside track of the current devolution process and risks being excluded from the deals being done. Given the weaknesses in this Government’s model of devolution, perhaps this wouldn’t be a disaster in some respects.
However, there is a danger of Hull being the forgotten city when issues like transport or broadband are discussed.
This would be unacceptable.
Hull’s a University City, a port gateway to Europe and the heart of the Energy Estuary. We have a growing digital and creative economy.
Hull has to be part of any ‘Northern Powerhouse’ worth the name.
Despite Hull’s recent successes with Siemens and the 2017 City of Culture, achieved without an elected mayor, there’s an urgent task ahead reversing decades of decline in traditional local industries.
Hull cannot risk falling further behind London and the South East.
Hull needs a long term regeneration effort, spanning decades, of the kind enjoyed by areas that had similar challenges in the past.
For example, when London’s declining Docklands needed help in 1980, after local politicians had spent most of the 1970s failing to agree a way forward across borough boundaries, the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine introduced an Urban Development Corporation to the area – granting for a temporary period extensive powers on planning and attracting investment.
It kick-started a transformation that continues 35 years later.
Despite having many of the same challenges – and much of the same potential - Hull hasn’t enjoyed similar largesse.
Although the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership has done admirable work with the resources available, Hull needs a more powerful voice on the national and global stage, driving forward local regeneration around modern industries that can build a broad-based, resilient economy for the future.
If Hull ends up outside the current devolution deals - through no fault of our own - Ministers must work with us on other options for giving our area that voice.
Real devolution could enable a new renaissance in great cities of the North, helping to resolve the ‘English Question’ for communities most distant from centres of economic and political power in London and Europe.
It could help close the unfair regional funding disparity in spheres like transport and the arts and close the growth gap between North and South - boosting UK growth overall.
Hull will continue working hard to make our own luck.
But we need more power devolved to make a difference in the interests of local people.
Not just the politicians – be they of Whitehall or town hall.
Labour MP for Hull North