Northern Powerhouse | Actions speak louder than words

Guest blog Vicky Seddon  chair of Sheffield for Democracy and Unlock Democracy council member

If George Osborne’s colleagues at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills had wanted to undermine the “Northern Powerhouse” project, this was  very effective way to go about it: announce that its current 13 regional offices will be reduced to 6, and that the current Sheffield office would not be one of those 6 but would close. The reaction has been predictable: shock and horror. 

The strategy of previous governments to disperse departments out of London, or to set up regional offices, was part of the plan to develop other cities, to share high-paying jobs and to gain from and encourage local expertise. Surely the same objectives as the Northern Powerhouse project? Or is this a demonstration that this “project”  is a smoke and mirrors exercise to hide the reality, that increased centralisation of decision making is intended to further the strategy of this Government in moving away from a lively and functioning public realm, and that the city deals, meagre as they are in actual money and actual powers, are meant to mask this? 

The democratic deficit is clear in these city deals. The first deal, in Greater Manchester, was signed without any consultation with the people there, includes an elected mayor to be imposed without consent of the people. It is  proving controversial and it likely to have an impact on this year’s local elections.  The second “deal”, in Sheffield, has been consulted on, to some degree, and is subject to agreement in the nine Councils that are part of the City Region, a grouping formed pragmatically as the “travel to work” area.  That agreement has been awaiting clarification of the veto powers of the mayor, and of the status of those authorities which are “two tier”.  My guess is that the announced closure of the BIS office in Sheffield could now call into question the whole deal. 

There has been much focus  on the elected mayors, largely rejected by the 10 cities, including Manchester and Sheffield, that were consulted by referendum in 2012,  in Sheffield for example by 65% to 35%. Whilst these were only parts of the wider areas now seemingly to be subject to an elected mayor, there is no evidence that asking the public in those wider areas would bring a different result. So Mr Osborne tried by fair means to get his favoured celebrity-style governance model accepted, and failed; he is now resorting to foul means. 

Interestingly, the directly elected police and crime commissioners are due for re-election this year but half of them have indicated that they will not be standing again, having had neither sufficient powers to fulfil their obligations, nor public credibility due to such poor turn-outs in their elections.

That lack of powers is also evident in the city deals where the supposed and much lauded transfer of powers is still bounded by a range of measures, including spending requirements, that ties their hands firmly to government policy.  And the money isn’t  great: £30m a year in Sheffield City Region. Compare that with the £50m cut in the coming year’s budget for Sheffield City  alone, whose budget has been reduced over the last six years from £600m to £300m, largely via the change in funding methodology from a needs-based model to a per-capita model.  Liverpool, the most impoverished of cities, has lost 57% of its budget. Power to the north?  Hardly.

It is widely acknowledged that the multiplicity of changes in local and regional governance over the last 30 years or so has not delivered either stability, encouraged economic or social or cultural development, nor proved legitimate in the public’s eye: turnouts in local elections are notoriously low.  Also, that England is one of the most centralised countries in Europe.  
What we now need is a consensus-led process for determining just how power can be decentralised and genuinely rooted in localities, to form a stable and sustainable system with the consent of the people it serves. Two things were flagged as basic building blocks for a democratic decentralisation of powers  in the important work of the last Government’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee with the Communities Select Committee.

They were widely consulted on and well received: constitutional status and fiscal powers  for local authorities. That could be a starting point. We don’t need another top-down reorganisation, but one that is grounded in a deliberative process, and based on evidence; not imposed via a gun to the head, but through an acceptable process of consultation and agreement.

So was the BIS announcement a conspiracy or a cock up?  Mr Osborne’s colleagues deliberately clipping his wings? Or simply having no idea of the reverberations?  Either way, Mr Osborne is looking grim. And so he should.