Northern democracy

Paul Salveson on 2021 and a reset for new normal

The North of England is in tough times and in the coming year they may well get tougher. Covid has killed many thousands and upended the livelihoods of millions. The end of the Brexit transition period will cause huge upheavals and potentially further major hardship, with parts of the North bearing the brunt. No wonder the newly-formed Northern Independence Party has already had thousands of messages of support on social media.

The region’s problems of social injustice and strategic economic weakness were already there; it’s just that the last year has compounded them. Decades of neoliberalism and ten years of austerity have taken their toll. Now the rollercoaster of successive crises is here to stay: global warming is with us. The Arctic is melting and nothing can be the same again even if we wanted it to be. 2021 offers the opportunity for a reset; people don’t want the new normal to be like the old normal. The North must have a new economy and a new social contract; it can and must ‘build back better’.

How? The Hannah Mitchell Foundation proposes a Campaign for Northern Democracy to argue that constitutional and democratic reform is a vital ingredient in the great task of building a new economy and addressing social injustice across the North. To succeed in fixing our social and economic problems, we must fix the problem of the North’s democratic deficit and abject subordination to London. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s an indispensable part of the solution. The North needs its own grassroots movement to demand it.

The Campaign for Northern Democracy can provide that grassroots movement. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation is inviting all citizens and organisations who are working for a better North of England, and agree that democratic reform in the North is part of what we need, to join us. It will be progressive and inclusive but politically non-aligned.

As a member of the broad campaign, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation will work with others to specialise in developing the thinking behind, and practice of, progressive regionalism and regional democratic government. That can take many forms and ‘The North’ isn’t a monolithic whole. It contains at least three generally-accepted ‘regions’: Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East and the North West. In the past, advocates of regional devolution have used these ‘standard planning regions’ (as they were once called) as the basis of future regional government. Yet regional identities don’t always fit with planners’ thinking. While Yorkshire clearly has a strong emotional identity (as well as making sense as a regional economic unit), the North West doesn’t. Lancashire does and a county-region taking in much of ‘historic’ Lancashire, including Merseyside and Greater Manchester, has a lot going for it.

Opponents of regional democracy still point to the referendum in the North East sixteen years ago, when a proposal from the Blair government for a regional assembly was decisively rejected. It was from that defeat that the idea of ‘city regions’ began to take hold in the world of planning and local government. However, there are two very big flaws with city regions. The first is that people don’t actually like them. Within the ten districts that make up Greater Manchester you won’t find anyone, even within the city of Manchester itself, describing themselves as “Greater Mancunians”. Towns like Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham still doggedly identify as “Lancastrian” and many fly the Lancashire flag on Lancashire Day, 27th November.

The second major problem with the ‘city region’ concept is that it is highly centralist, concentrating economic and political power on ‘the city’ and consigning the so-called ‘satellite’ towns to secondary status. So in Greater Manchester, the economic growth of Manchester in the last decade has been undeniable. But the once-economically powerful towns surrounding it are in a dire way. More and more power has been ceded by the districts to the ‘combined authority’ which lacks either credibility or accountability.

The ‘county region’ approach offers a different model where the region covers a bigger area but one which makes sense in terms of a viable regional economy, supported by a strong regional transport network and links between cities and towns on many different levels. Instead of power being concentrated on one centre, there could be two or three regional centres (in the case of Lancashire: Manchester, Liverpool and Preston) linked by good rail connections complemented by strong ‘second tier’ towns and cities such as Warrington, Lancaster, Bolton and St Helens.

For more information on the Hannah Mitchell Foundation and the CfND, contact Paul by email.

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