Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:22 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour 12:22 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, I wish to address my remarks to the northern issue, not necessarily the town or the city. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on securing this debate on the excellent State of the North report. She said at the beginning that basically decentralisation is what she is concerned about, not devolution, but those two things are two sides of the same coin if we are to find a framework, on a spatial basis, to develop the north—not the tribal basis of each of us talking for Hull, for York or wherever. What contribution and framework do we need to meet the real development of the north? It almost takes me back to when Michael Foot, when he was leader of the Opposition, asked me to find an agreement between the Scots and the English regions after the failure of the first Scotland Bill in Parliament. I talked to them all; they all had the same problem. They were concerned about high unemployment and about growth; they were concerned that growth was really in the south and not the north—very similar arguments in Scotland as in the northern regions. I had to find an agreement about that.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the business of devolution, because it is the same framework. The devolution I mean is what we introduced in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; we produced an elected government in London—a regional government—and a cities policy, and all this was part of devolution. It found a role for the local government within a framework; that was what was essential for us and we did it. Tragically, this was opposed all the time by the Tories and scrapped when they came in in 2010. Even with RDAs, which everybody thought were successful, they kept development agencies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but took them away from the English regions and gave us these enterprise boards or something—what do you call them? They do not have the resources or the powers and do not compare to an RDA. To that extent, the Tories took the view that they were more concerned with local than regional government. That is an important difference.

When Osborne came along—whatever his full name is—he gave us “northern devolution”. It is not northern, because it does not cover all the north; it certainly does not cover Hull and anything east of the Pennines. It is not devolution; it is local government reform. I quite welcome that, if that is what we are going to have. It lacks the regional dimension, which is absolutely essential if we are to get the northern economy moving and to recognise the disparities between the north and south. There is a similar argument between Scotland and England as within the English regions themselves.

We have to look at what northern devolution was. I note that all the report on northern devolution dismisses the rhetoric of “powerhouse”—it is certainly not that. However, the report says that devolution is waning, and that it is,

“too partial, piecemeal and parochial”.

That is because the Government have always been against the regional dimension. They always want to see it within the local government framework—so do I. However, strategic thinking needs a strategy.

I am glad to see that the Government now recognise two things. First, Mr Clark, the Secretary of State, is now looking at spatial economic development. We have a Minister who represents every centralised issue in government. The department that matters now is the one for energy and industrial strategy. The Government are right to pursue that, but they do not like to use the talk of regions. That is another difficulty. How do we bring that together?

We need to be talking about the places of growth, and not only in each city or small area but in the region of the north. The north runs from Liverpool to Hull. We need a strategy that shows that as a place of growth. We need to use the Humber—the greatest source of energy we have at the moment. It is an energy estuary; it is environmental and developmental in a fundamental way. It is not just about culture—I leave that on the side—it is about economic development, and that is important. But you need a framework for that. The framework is crucial and we do not have it at the moment.

The argument for Brexit in negotiations was really about redistributing power and resources, not back to the centre but to the regions. Let us see where the money goes. That is a constitutional change—a further balance between the north and the south. I believe we should stay in the European Union but, leaving that aside, if there are negotiations and money is to come back, let it go to the regions. Let us have constitutional change.

Scotland wants more powers for devolution, and probably to stay in, as it has said. I have combined with my colleague Gordon Brown to see if Scotland and the north can form a powerhouse together. If you want a real powerhouse, put Scotland and the north together for the same reason: to redistribute the power and resources and begin to develop a northern economy. Find a framework; it is strategic.

Thank goodness the Government are partly there with Transport for the North, which is now looking for a regional solution, because that cannot be done with local government boundaries. This House will very shortly be debating new powers for Transport for the North which are regional. Let us start looking at the north as a region, not tribally representing Liverpool, Manchester, Hull or wherever. Let us get back to thinking strategically.