My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is one of the nicest and most sensible Members of the House—of his party anyway—and he will be very much missed.
I will talk about the north of England. It is the second region of England after London and the south-east together, and has 15 million people—three times as many as Scotland and five times as many as Wales. It is a region that shares considerable cultural, economic and social cohesion and history, and many current problems. I speak about the north as a whole because the north should stand together as a whole.
What we have had so far is asymmetric devolution. Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales have become increasingly fairly fully functioning units of a federal system, except there is no federal system for them to be the units of. This is not a system that is sustainable in the long run. We still have a highly centralised state, not least in England, with a number of peripheral anomalies. If I call Wales and Scotland peripheral anomalies, I do so with great admiration that they have been able to break free from the grip of London to the extent that they have. Then we have gimmicks such as EVEL.
We have people who believe that the answer is a fully federal system with an English Parliament, but the result of that would be the complete detachment of Scotland and Wales in due course and it would do nothing to change the concentration of economic and political power within England. We have had a series of feeble initiatives. There was the rather pathetic attempt of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, when he was in the other place, to have a north-east England assembly with no powers, which was rightly rejected. In Labour’s regional offices, civil servants from different parts sat in the same building, usually on different floors, and talked to their bosses in London rather than to each other. There was the coalition’s regional growth fund and its local enterprise partnerships—nobody has really noticed that they exist.
The north of England is being fragmented into city regions in the name of devolution, but it is not devolution: it is almost entirely the reorganisation of local government. It is the concentration of power within local government, with all power going to the big cities, but what is that except the power for those involved to carry begging bowls on the train to Whitehall and Westminster and, if they are lucky, to go home with their railway fares? In so far as power is being concentrated in big cities through city regions and mayors, the people who suffer in the north of England are those in the areas on the edges and the places in between and particularly towns, which have lost so much of their civic culture, power and society in recent years.
However, we are getting a greater recognition of the north of England as a region in its own right, not fragmented into three or four different regions, but as a unit. We also have the northern powerhouse. It was a slogan invented by George Osborne when he was Chancellor, but it has resulted in meetings, conferences, projects and all sorts of things. It has resulted in the relabelling as northern powerhouse projects of projects that would have been happening anyway, but it might have some value in the recognition it has encouraged of the north of England.
Transport for the North is far more important. Here is a devolved transport body which has real powers. It still has to go with a begging bowl to London for pretty well everything but, nevertheless, it is a body with powers, it covers the north of England, and transport is perhaps the place to start. Network Rail and NHS England both have a director for the north; we have the Northern Housing Consortium; the IPPR has set up IPPR North, a dedicated think tank for the north of England; the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has meetings and, no doubt, lots of pleasant dinners; and we are told there is Northern Powerhouse Rail, whatever that turns out to be in the long run. The Mayor of Liverpool has said he is fed up with it all because there is no power: these groups put forward good proposals to London for why things should be set up and funded, and London says, “Well, you can have a bit of it”. It is not very satisfactory. He says the Northern Powerhouse Partnership was,
“set up by a Government which isn’t prepared to listen”.
The begging-bowl mentality continues.
I believe the future lies in devolution to the north of England, with a body which, in an asymmetric system—inevitably, as the legal and other systems are different—can stand alongside Wales, Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland, if it can ever get its act together again. The proposal for a UK convention, or even an English convention, is worth while, but what is needed before any national convention can take place is a convention of people in the north of England. It is time for those of us in the north of England to get together, sit together across the whole of the north of England, and work out the options for what we would like. This should be discussed by the people of the north of England; we would then come to a national convention and say, “This is what we want”. That is what Scotland did; it is what the north of England has to do. It requires a considerable change of attitude, not just by central Government but by people across the north.