Devolution in the North of England

ACORN ACORN International
CGeorge Osborne’s northern powerhouse policy has given Greater Manchester a £6bn health and social care budget and powers over transport, police and housing. Photograph: Joel Goodman/PA
George Osborne. Photograph: Joel Goodman/PA

Newcastle    I had ridden by Newcastle before on the train between Edinburgh and London, and mainly looked at the wide river and noted how striking it was in contrast to the old saying that defined a waste of time and effort as being like “bringing coal to Newcastle.” Of course they don’t mine coal anywhere around Newcastle anymore, nor is their steel and other heavy industry. The city center is still grand and looming in a way that Pittsburgh and Detroit speak to immense wealth in the past that is still a work in progress in the present.

Talking to the ACORN organizers in Newcastle their attention was riveted on their first organizing drive in Heaton, low-and-moderate income area which is building momentum toward the launch of the organization in coming weeks. Invariably conversations moved to the problems of getting rental security deposits back despite rules and regulations requiring it, the escalating rent, damp and mold, and the myriad issues burdening tenants all over the United Kingdom finding little action or relief.

The north of England has been the focus of the ruling Conservative Party’s initiatives around devolution. During the Scottish election last year more than 100 city councils had made parallel demands for increased powers along the lines the Party was pledging to Scotland if they rejected independence. Now the Treasury Secretary George Osborne has made a number of proposals starting with an amalgamation in Manchester that outline what they are willing to allow. Newcastle has also made a number of steps to get in the early line for whatever might be possible from devolution.

Osborne’s outline is pretty straightforward. There would be a grand mayor of sorts and representatives from each of the city councils amalgamating into this form of larger or regional government would have a seat on the new council. The new formation would have authority over housing, transportation, planning, and public safety or policing. Roads, schools, and garbage collection would remain with the local councils. Osborne claims he’s willing to make the devolution deal with any metropolitan formation that is willing to agree to such terms and conditions. Bristol has an elected mayor so might be eligible for example.

Given the tension on housing and the general distance of the central government and its resistance to change and isolation from pressure, this has some attraction, and as argued to me in London recently by a former government official, the cities are going to get stuck with cuts and having to defend them anyway, so essentially, they might as well get something out of the deal. Obviously the one key thing they are not getting is the ability to raise more money. They would get the money from Treasury to pay the bills they are handling centrally, but austerity is austerity.

We walked past several large parks after we left the city centre and the soaring soccer stadium crouched over the skyline. Tom Scott, one of ACORN Newcastle’s organizers, made the point that the council had announced that in the next budget there would be no money for parks. He wondered what might happen to them in the future with no maintenance or attention. Pushing the buck down the line doesn’t mean that the pain won’t persist until the screaming and cries are deafening.