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New devolution deals announced at annual “Gove-fest”

The Levelling Up Secretary stole the show by ceding to a key Labour demand.

By Jonny Ball

It comes around fast, doesn’t it? It seems like only yesterday that crowds of northern policy wonks amassed in Manchester for last year’s Convention of the North. This year, we’re in Leeds, next to the city’s Royal Armoury Museum and an adjacent conference hall. Perhaps the martial connotations of the venue are fitting, as Conservative vs Labour, government vs opposition, secretary vs shadow secretary of state battle for the soul of the wild regions beyond the Mersey and the Humber. They are here to see who can burnish their English devolution credentials most effectively to a Stan-army of local government bods and think-tankers keen on skills policy.

These are the people who know the difference between your everyday, run-of-the-mill council and a combined authority, who know the details of level three deals and trailblazers (if you don’t, then read on). This is what we count the days to – it’s our Glastonbury. Our Gove-fest. Because yes, it is he, Michael Gove, Levelling Up Secretary, who dutifully acts as the star of these shows. And this year he has some red meat to throw to a hungry audience.

The conference hall is lit like an Ibiza superclub. As we walk in through the double doors to a pumping, pop-house soundtrack, the BBC presenter Clive Myrie is hosting underneath the coloured lights, introducing metro mayors and business leaders. Have we entered a strange alternate reality in which former Coronation Street actor and now the Labour mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, is, in fact, a superstar DJ? Very possibly.

But Gove wasn’t here to replicate those famous dancefloor shapes he’s normally so happy to throw. In the last budget it was announced that Greater Manchester and the West Midlands would be awarded so-called trailblazer deals, in which two mayor Andys (that’s Burnham and Street), would be given a new set of powers over skills, transport and housing policy. “And today we’re extending these same opportunities to West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the Liverpool City Region,” said Gove.

This is a big deal for English devolution. The three Labour-controlled authorities will now have far deeper settlements, equivalent to the two-Andys’ so-called “level 4” agreements, which include, according to the government’s official communique, “a consolidated single pot for housing and regeneration funding as a stepping stone to a full single department-style funding settlement at the subsequent multi-year Spending Review”. Translated, that means far more control over their own budgets and far less time spent bidding into ring-fenced, centrally-controlled, competitive funding pots.

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There are three northern bodies benefiting from these new powers, each bringing together multiple local councils under a larger umbrella organisation run under the executive mayors (hence “combined authority”). Under the new arrangement, they will get: “control over adult skills provision; influence over Great British Railway’s priorities for services and infrastructure; control over more local transport funding; and influence over UK Research and Innovation strategies and funding”. This latter one is the non-departmental government body that distributes billions in research funding each year.

Gove told the conference that it didn’t matter to him that the beneficiaries of these deals were Labour politicians: “In a few months’ time we’ll be arguing passionately about different visions for the country as a whole. But – much more importantly to me, [they] are directly accountable local politicians with a mandate and a mission and a responsibility to deliver economic growth and improved opportunities for people in Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Castleford, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster, Liverpool, Knowsley, Runcorn, Southport and the Wirral.”

Afterwards, at the press conference, even the Rat Pack band of Labour metro mayors couldn’t help but praise the speech. Two of them, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the latter as mayor of Liverpool City Region, have just dedicated almost an entire book to lamenting the lack of powers given to the political representatives of northern cities and towns. And here they were to hear the Levelling Up Secretary bestow upon them more policy control than ever before, and claim his “theology is devolution”.

“I thought it was a good speech by the Secretary of State,” Rotheram told huddled journalists. “Level four devolution shows us the distance we’ve travelled, how much we’ve caught up… there’s a relationship of trust with Westminster and Whitehall.”

Then it was back to the theology.

“If anyone knows Michael Gove as well as we do, it’s almost a road to Damascus conversion from him,” Rotheram said. “He’s now very supportive of what we’re trying to do locally. He genuinely believes in devolution. It’s not an act. He’s evangelical, a zealot for devolution. And that’s important, because he’s someone who can run a department and who can get delivery.”

It was always going to be a tough speech for a Labour politician to follow. When asked if they had any sense or signals that Labour would restore local government funding, Tracy Brabin obfuscated. “Keir Starmer gets it, Angela Rayner gets it,” she told us, provoking a wry side-eye from her colleague Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne mayor and putative “last Corbynista in power” (a moniker he has tried to shake off), who recently announced he was standing as an independent after being told he would not make Labour’s candidate shortlist again.

But back in the clubland of the main conference hall, Rayner, Gove’s opposite number, had little to offer. We know that true levelling up would require a package of sustained investment running into the hundreds of billions of pounds over several decades, as well as multi-departmental and cross-party efforts lasting far longer than our electoral cycles. But her main pitch seemed to be that she was northern, and also that several other members of the shadow cabinet, are, in fact, northern. “I come from a political tradition that dates back centuries,” she said. What tradition? Was it the labour movement? No – “a tradition of northerners that are proud of the place they call home”.

She claimed that Labour were “the party of devolution” and name-checked the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Ireland Assembly. But in terms of English regional devolution, the record of the last Labour government has been roundly outpaced by the Conservatives. And when it came to the substance of undoing the damage undone by 14 years of the Tories’ fiscal tightening, lack of investment, and multiplying funding crises, Rayner couldn’t commit.

Would she commit to re-starting work on the HS2 link between Manchester and Birmingham, or Birmingham and Leeds, asked Myrie.

“It’s a tricky one because we don’t know what we’re going to inherit,” Rayner shot back.

Would she commit to restoring local government funding?

“We need longer-term funding settlements and the end of Dragon’s Den-style funding pots.”

There’s palpable anger in this room, Myrie observed, about HS2’s cancellation, and about the local government funding crisis. But Labour won’t commit to restoring either the northern leg of high speed rail, or councils’ revenue support grants.

Again, Rayner dodged the question and said she wanted fewer bidding processes and funding pots, and an end to shorter term financial settlements (the Levelling Up Secretary has also expressed a desire to move away from both of these models).

Last year, when I asked the shadow levelling up minister, Alex Norris, about Labour’s plans for devolution, he said he wanted trailblazer-style deals extended. Now, he’s got his wish and that particular wind has been snatched from the Labour sail. The opposition could see a similar pilfering of their demands if the government follows through on a mooted abolition of non-dom tax status in its upcoming Budget this week. With the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, keeping a tight lid on spending commitments, there’s little beyond promises of more powers, delivered faster, that Labour’s levelling up team can offer. Gove last week announced yet another round of regional devolution – the missing link is that power has to be combined with adequate resources to become effective.

The laws of the universe dictate that attendance at any conference on northern devolution and levelling up must be accompanied by a two-hour, standing-only train home across the Pennines. For all our sakes, let’s hope there is more to Labour’s plans than more of the same, but better. And, of course, being northern.

[Read more: How would Labour do levelling up?]

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