Northerners say `give powers back to people'

Alienation from London fuels desire for devolution, reports Jonathan Fo ster
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Last orders in a typical Gateshead pub brings to a head all the usual conversational passions - Newcastle United, sex, and devolution.

Scoring in footballing or amorous affairs is what the London political classes would expect north country proletarians to be discussing, but devolution by any other name has moved steadily up the popular agenda, according to Labour MPs from north of the Trent.

"They may not be talking the vocabulary of devolution in the pubs and clubs," Joyce Quin, MP for Gateshead East, said. "But they are increasingly saying `that lot down there don't understand us.' "

Unlike Scotland, the North of England has only the remnants of a separate cultural identity as an idiom for political separatism, but alienation from London has become a more potent force than mere dialect.

"Resentment of Westminster and Whitehall has grown because the Tory governments of the last 15 years have done more than any in the past to stamp a uniformity across Britain, despite the dissenting views of people in different parts of the country," David Clelland, MP for Tyne Bridge, said.

The North-east has established a regional assembly of local councils and a development agency. Ms Quin said their impetus was defensive and opportunistic. "There has been an understandable reaction to the increasing centralisation of political power, which was such a notable feature of Thatcherism, channell ed into wider movements for constitutional reform like Charter 88.

"Increasing involvement in the EC also promoted awareness of benefits of a regional approach - the EC was seen as the ally of regional aspirations."

Mr Clelland said Whitehall decisions and priorities often clashed with a regional consensus. Even a prosaic issue such as London's decision to improve the A1 trunk road brought local resistance. "The effects on local communities have not been heeded, andour priorities for road-building are different - an all-weather trans-Pennine route, for example. Our transport policy would be better decided here."

Farther south down the A1, MPs including John Gunnell (Leeds S and Morley), the Labour deputy leader, John Prescott (Hull E), and Richard Caborn (Sheffield C) have pressed for English devolution to be given greater emphasis.

As a front-bench spokesman in 1991, Mr Caborn produced the party's most detailed blueprint for regional assemblies, so radical it envisaged a virtual federalism. That research revealed London and the South-east was the greatest recipient of "regional aid"; civil servants salaries alone ensured the capital and its dormitory belt enjoyed disproportionate affluence. Devolution of power, according to Mr Caborn, can also mean a redistribution of wealth away from the South-east. By imitating German Lander (federal states), it could enhance economic development and access to the EC's regional policy-making structures.

Mr Caborn's South Yorkshire colleagues have claimed the coal industry closure would have been handled better by regional government. Identity is not a problem. "We earned a reputation in the 1980s as the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire," Mr Caborn said. "What began as a bit of a joke actually came to mean something serious - a distinctive part of Britain that has a right to make its own decisions."

Merseyside's characteristics, especially its poverty, were recognised by the EC last year with the award of Objective One status - grants worth £650m.

Peter Kilfoyle, MP for Liverpool Walton, has spent months in fruitless search for who or what will pay the grants and how they will be spent.

"We have no idea what's happening to the Objective One money, and nobody accountable for it," Mr Kilfoyle said. "We have a quango, the Merseyside Development Corporation, which has been condemned for wasting money. We have privatised utilities and NHS trusts. All are responsible to someone in London. The English regions have been given an integrated civil service, with the increased powers of Whitehall departments exercised by one civil servant.''

"These guys are largely anonymous, but very powerful and unaccountable locally," Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South, said. "This is almost medieval, with the regional office acting like some Sheriff of Nottingham disbursing his favour. The issue of devolution round here has a profile lower than lino, but put it in the context of the focus of everything being on London and the resentment is potent.

"The Tories have shifted power massively. To swing the pendulum back toward the people needs stronger local government as well as regional government."