Whitehall or Wakefield?

The North is getting ready to break away from London and run its own affairs. Nick Cohen reports
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The Independent Online
With a self-assurance that even his fellow Yorkshiremen could find vainglorious, Mike Bower, leader of Sheffield City Council, has put himself forward as the first leader of the united counties of Yorkshire and Humberside. On 10 July he will, barring accidents, be made chairman of the Yorkshire Regional Assembly; a body whose imposing title belies the reality of its complete lack of legal status, tax-raising powers, right to legislate and, to be frank, electoral mandate.

Yet Yorkshire's attempt to emulate the decentralisation of France, Germany and Spain cannot be stopped. Working parties are drawing up constitutions and, with no regard for legal formalities, are trying to find the best ways to represent the county in Europe. At the same time they are scrutinising the region's unelected centres of power: Yorkshire Water, the notorious private monopoly, and Whitehall-appointed quangos which control most local services.

There is already competition over the siting of the "capital" - as if Yorkshire were a newly independent colony deciding its seat of government. Barnsley and Harrogate are fighting for the honour, but the clever money is on Wakefield: it may not look much but it has good motorway links.

Across the Pennines, councils, businessmen, trade unions and academics have formed the North West Regional Association. Like the Yorkshire assembly, it has no right to exist. But, again, the opportunity to establish the building blocks of a devolved England has been seized. The association has a secretariat, funded by local authorities, an office in Brussels and economic regeneration plans for the region. "We began work in1992 because we thought Labour was going to be elected and give us regional government," says Louise Ellman, chairwoman of the association. "Still, we'll be ready this time."

Meanwhile, down the M6 in London, Tony Blair gave a speech earlier this month which partially convinced even the sourest left-wingers that the man may have at least some principles. At Westminster Central Hall, to a huge and enthusiastic audience, the Labour leader passionately committed himself to restoring the civic pride lost when the GLC was abolished. London must have an elected voice, he said. It was governed by a network of unelected and illegitimate boards and quangos. "It lacks, and yet so urgently needs, a galvanising powerful vision of the future."

None of this is in the script the wise heads of Whitehall and Fleet Street wrote in the late 1980s. The English were not interested in institutional reform, their story went. No one cares; no one talks about it in pubs. When Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group was founded, the metropolitan and largely Conservative elite roundly condemned it as a talking shop for the Hampstead chattering classes. Calls for proportional representation and abolition of the House of Lords were preposterous enough, they argued, but the real absurdity was the idea that the English regions wanted power devolved and an "extra layer of government".

Yet the Hampstead chatterers seem to have history on their side. Across the country, local politicians are emphasising that regional government could bring an alienated electorate back to politics and make them feel they have some control over their lives.

The hopes may be exaggerated - disillusion with politicians and politics is as common in the decentralised political systems of North America and Western Europe as in Britain. None the less, Labour's leaders are discovering that the demands of the English regions cannot be ignored.

The party has been forced by conviction and electoral necessity to concede that Scotland and Wales should have their own parliaments. Scotland was special, it said; and most Scots agreed. It had its own culture, history, law and traditions. The English regions were just provinces, which had known nothing but centralisation since 1066.

Jack Straw appeared to dampen the hopes of the regions last year when he issued a consultation document on English government which even by the standards of new Labour was a cautious piece of work. Yes, it seemed reluctantly to conclude, there could be English regional assemblies, but they would have little muscle and no popular base.

Their members would be nominated by local authorities and would be allowed to scrutinise quangos and encourage economic growth. They could not be directly elected and enjoy the legitimacy and power a mandate brings until a formidable series of hurdles had been cleared. A majority of the members of the chamber would have to approve the move to direct elections, as would a majority of local authorities, MPs and the region's population (who would be consulted in a referendum). Put simply, strong regional government would not come until the next millennium, if at all.

From a Westminster perspective Mr Straw's circumspection seemed justified. All the pro-Labour pressure groups in the capital praised his careful plan to build up "organic" support and allow change to come from the bottom rather than be imposed from above.

But the response from the regions has been energetic. Hundreds of submissions have poured into the shadow Home Secretary's office demanding a faster pace of change and Mr Straw seems likely to be forced to bend by the summer when he will produce the definitive statement on party policy. It is already all but certain that next month John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, will announce that Labour wants to create a secretary of state for the English regions to match the secretaries of state for Wales and Scotland.

Local leaders in the north of England are telling Labour they want power now. Their impatience shows that in a sense Scotland has moved south. Mistrust of "London", the mythical city from where all evil flows, and the belief that devolution can bring prosperity can be found everywhere north of the Trent.

The popular support for regional government can be questioned (Mr Straw may be proved right) but the determination of local authorities to organise now for a share of democratic power when Labour gets elected is apparent.

The arguments deployed for devolution in England are different from those in Scotland. The debate is cooler and this may explain why so little attention is being paid to what is happening in Preston, Sheffield and Newcastle. Scottish nationalism and demands for Scottish devolution, however "civic" and rational, have a gut appeal to a patriotic national community which no politician in Leeds could exploit.

In the north of England, local politicians arguing for regional power often sound as if they are making a cost-benefit analysis which demonstrates that the present centralised system of government costs the North a great deal.

It is hard to disagree. The Conservatives have largely abandoned the old idea that it was the job of Whitehall to redistribute wealth to what were known in the 1930s as the depressed areas. Since 1982, the regional aid budget has fallen by 60 per cent.

Effective control of these resources lies with Whitehall which in 1994 created 10 English Integrated Regional Offices to tackle the environment, trade and industry and transport. Not only do the local electorates have no say in how their combined budgets of pounds 6.2bn are spent, the quangos controlling spending are far from efficient. The Association of British Chambers of Commerce, a body not noted for its radicalism, has condemned them for squandering public money.

While resources and power have disappeared, the leaders of Yorkshire and Northumbria can see their colleagues from Germany and France negotiating directly with the European Union. No wonder they want devolution.

But there are problems, as there always are with any attempt to redistribute power. Much of the South outside London may well not want regional assemblies and could see them as pointless bureaucracies. Even in the North there are potential conflicts between big cities and their regions which threaten to be as bitter as any fights between Whitehall and the provinces.

Manchester and Liverpool, for example, have 250 years of commercial and about 100 years of sporting rivalry behind them. Manchester's civic leaders are not at all clear that a north-west assembly can suddenly end the old enmities.

Take the rather mundane question of airports. Manchester Airport is a great success. Liverpool's is not. At the peak of the holiday season more flights touch down in Manchester in one week than arrive at Liverpool in a year. Manchester has already tried to use regional forums to get full-blooded backing for a second runway. Liverpool's demands that flights should be switched to its near-empty airport have always stood in the way.

Graham Stringer, leader of Manchester City Council, hates Whitehall centralism as much as any Scottish nationalist - "I'm sick of the strait-jacket," he says. But he does not want to swap rule from London for rule from Preston or Chester or wherever else a north-west assembly would be based. If an assembly comes, its powers must be limited, he insists, because Manchester has its own interests and is big enough to go it alone in Europe.

Similar conflicts will be fought out across the country; it will be easy for constitutional conservatives to sigh that this shows that England must remain the only country in Western Europe without a devolved system of government.

But looked at another way, the fights are a sign of health, symptoms that constitutional reform in England has moved a long way from the drawing- rooms of Hampstead. The back-biting, manoeuvring about regional capitals, jobbery, jockeying, influence-peddling, fixing and dealing are the minor vices of real politics. And without political action, nothing changes.