Scotland is not reviving English regional assemblies debate, but something’s stirring in the North

Fog on the Tyne, but no parliament. Steven Correy, CC BY-SA

You can perhaps forgive the north of England for casting an envious glance across the border to Scotland. A yes vote in September could significantly enhance Scotland’s ability to determine its own economic future.

It comes at a time when abolishing the regional development agencies in England has undermined the capacity for regional voice and reduced the resources and strategic cohesion needed to plan for economic growth. Many in the North of England fear that the area could be uncomfortably caught between a resurgent Scotland and an all-powerful London and the South East.

For politicians and much of the local media in North East England where I am based, Scotland is viewed as already having powerful political and economic development organisations; the capacity to speak with a single voice; and far superior resources. One study in 2012 suggested that Scotland spent 76% more per head of population on economic development than the North East. It found that high-profile investors such as Amazon were being lured to Scotland by the promise of extensive support from Scottish Enterprise.

Such concerns have been intensified by the Scottish government’s commitments to reduce both corporation tax and air passenger duty. Business and political leaders across the North East have been using the Scottish independence debate to reinforce their case to Westminster for greater economic and fiscal devolution within England.

What sort of devolution?

Some Labour MPs in the North East have been pressing for the regional development agencies to be reinstated. There have also been calls, mainly in the letters pages of local newspapers, for another try at creating elected regional assemblies. One former Labour MP has even proposed that we form a new North East Party.

It all gives me a strong sense of déjà vu to the mood of the early 2000s, until the public rejected such an assembly for the North East in 2004. But given the scale of that rejection and the absence of any political commitment to bring back the regional development agencies, it is unlikely that more powers will be transferred. Nor has the campaign for an English parliament gained any traction in a region uneasy and uncomfortable with notions of Englishness.

What looks more likely is Westminster strengthening the sub-regional level – particularly given that the Labour party has now accepted the coalition government’s local enterprise partnerships model. Instead of opposing these collaborations between councils and local businesses, Labour is now arguing that their powers and resources should be increased.

The sub-regional level is also important in the context of creating combined authorities, which allows councils to share decision-making over areas such as skills, transport and economic investment. For example the seven councils in the north of the North East have recently been awarded such status.

Borderlands

One move that has emerged more directly from the debate on Scottish independence is the Borderlands initiative. It was first outlined in a report commissioned by the Association of North East Councils in 2013. The report said that while no one underestimated the robust competition from a resurgent Scotland, the prospect of greater Scottish autonomy also provided opportunities to collaborate in areas of mutual benefit.

The initiative recommends that the five local authorities on either side of the border – Northumberland, Cumbria, Carlisle, Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Borders – should create a borderlands partnership that collaborates over common economic challenges and opportunities such as connectivity, tourism and rural development.

Alex Salmond and his local government minister, Derek Mackay, promptly backed the initiative. It was also positively received by the five relevant councils, who have since been discussing how best to develop it. One of the attractions is that it can be taken forward irrespective of the outcome of the vote on September 18.

In short, the recognition that the economic and social interests of the North are being badly served by political centralisation within England and the ever-growing north-south divide has prompted discussions about how the North should respond – even while there is little sign of the question of regional assemblies reviving. Scotland may pose a threat in some ways, but it also presents an opportunity for collaborating with the North of England where there are mutual interests. In the words of Salmond, we can be northern lights in the face of the dominance of the dark star of London.

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