George Osborne’s quest to stamp his name on a 2020 leadership bid has seen the birth of a personal project intended to build a network of northern cities that together can compete with the economic power of London. To do this, he has been inviting local authorities to team up and submit plans to devolve powers, with only one condition – that any significant powers must be accompanied by the creation of directly elected mayors.
The latest announcements of devolution deals are the result of years of careful planning, negotiation and cosying up to local government by the Chancellor and represents George Osborne at his political best.
He has been able to combine his party’s interests, the country’s economic interests and his personal ambitions into one grand policy scheme. Rebalancing the UK economy away from London will provide a level of insurance in the event of another financial crisis, and reduce the economy’s reliance on the city of London for growth.
The creation of elected mayors also offers the Conservatives a chance to attack Labour in their traditional heartlands, as they seek to replicate Boris Johnson’s success of leading a traditionally Labour city.
It remains to be seen what exactly this policy roadmap will shape into. Currently, it appears the recent deals in the Manchester and Sheffield city regions are the government’s preferred method of creating a powerhouse.
These city regions will be focused on a large city and include the surrounding areas. For example, York, Huddersfield and Ripon would all fall into the Leeds City Region.
Here lies one of the major challenges for the northern powerhouse. The North is a region marked by contrasts. Busy city skylines full of cranes and towers are separated by farms, leafy rural villages and former industrious towns. The North doesn’t have one set of problems or solutions. The challenges faced in the cities are very different to the challenges faced in the most rural parts of the North.
Far from building an economic area capable of competing with the draw of London, there is a risk that the northern powerhouse will be dominated by major cities competing for resources at the expense of their surrounding areas. Elected mayors will amplify this problem, as they will ultimately be elected by the largest population areas, the cities. The northern powerhouse is an important policy, both for the North and for Osborne and the Conservatives. However, it is not real devolution and is unlikely to replicate success in London. London has succeeded in part due to its assembly, a collection of locally elected representatives who have the power to hold a mayor, with significant power to account.If George Osborne wants to replicate the success of London and truly build a northern powerhouse, why not expand the regional devolution model that has worked so well in London? Instead, he has offered minimal power with minimal accountability.
Ultimately, Osborne’s project is an undemocratic approach to devolution. Deals have been, and are currently being, negotiated behind closed doors with little to no public involvement. Leaders of local authorities have jumped at the chance to receive a small number of additional powers, which in reality will still be tightly controlled from Westminster. The northern powerhouse is a cynical attempt to jump on the bandwagon of calls for devolution in England.