“One of the problems with the North is that we have tribes. We have tribes from Liverpool. We have a political tribe from Manchester. We have a political tribe from Leeds… and to that extent we need to bring that together in a Council of the North.”
That was the verdict of former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, speaking to a packed Leeds Town Hall at the recent Spotlight conference on the Northern Powerhouse.
A keen advocate of further devolution to the northern regions both in government and opposition, Prescott acknowledged some of the incremental progress that has been made over the three years since George Osborne’s launch of the Northern Powerhouse strategy, and particularly welcomed the return of the language of state intervention, if not its actual application.
“I’m encouraged by the idea of an industrial strategy, which uses the words ‘planning’, ‘intervention’, and ‘sector development’. Blimey! These were ideological differences only ten or 15 years ago.”
But he did not pull any punches when it came to criticising the Powerhouse’s shortcomings. Articulating a frequent refrain of northerners living outside the M62 corridor, he claimed that the Powerhouse was not “fully northern”. Rather, “it actually stops at the Pennines. It’s a kind of local government reform, decentralised in one way or another, but it is not fully regional as it was with the Northern Way.”
Initiated by Labour in 2004, only to be cancelled by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2011, the Northern Way brought together Regional Development Agencies (also now abolished and replaced with Local Enterprise Partnerships) to try and address the stubborn inequalities in investment, economic output and life chances between the North of England and the South.
“The government abolished the Northern Way proposals on the basis that they don’t like regions… What seems to have come from this [current devolution] framework is almost a centralisation of decentralisation because the powers for the transport body [Transport for the North] have to be cleared by the Department for Transport and they have to be cleared by the Treasury… But in London they raise their own resources, they have their own powers, they make their own decisions.”
Lamenting the loss of what could perhaps be seen as an early trailblazer of Osborne’s Powerhouse, the Labour grandee nevertheless advocated greater unity of purpose amongst northern leaders in making the Powerhouse work. “There are more people in the northern regions of England than in Scotland and Wales put together… I’m not advocating ‘wait for a change of government and we’ll make a change’ attitude. We can’t waste any more time. We lost six years by cancelling the Northern Way. So let’s keep on with the structure we’ve got, but advocate the changes that are absolutely necessary.”