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‘DevolutioNorth’: rethinking ‘Levelling Up’ and the North-South Divide

Since the creation of the devolved administrations in 1998, the requirements and demands of local government have expanded beyond what was ever anticipated by the 1997 Labour Government. Aside from an increase in competencies of the Welsh and Scottish devolved administrations, England has seen an upheaval in its local government arrangements in so-called ‘city-regions’ with the introduction of the combined authority and the elected ‘Metro-Mayor’. 

The rationale behind English devolution’s expansion has often stemmed from the ‘West-Lothian’ question, where ‘England-only’ issues are subject to votes by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. By facilitating greater local government competency, provisions for English cities are best made at the local level where those who are in-touch with local needs can distribute resources accordingly rather than being subject to votes of the whole house. Intertwined with ‘West-Lothian’ justifications are contentions of devolution as a facilitator for increased participatory democracy. The elected ‘metro-mayor’ is another conduit through which local people can voice their concerns, as well as the corresponding assemblies and combined authority cabinets. Local people are undoubtedly better represented by increased local government. 

However, there is an oft-neglected reasoning behind English devolution and the argument for its eventual expansion – the north-south divide. By viewing reform of the UK’s public administration and local government structures with an eye to a reduction in regional inequality, ‘City-Regional’ devolution and local government reform is the next imperative constitutional consideration.

IPPR North, a regional think tank, state that the United Kingdom ‘is the most regionally unbalanced, advanced economy in the world’. According to statistics from Newcastle University, the life-expectancy disparity between the north and the south is significant, with a 20% higher rate of premature death for people living in the North of England. Economic productivity is lower in the north, with economic output per person £4 lower than other regions. Poverty rates are also 5% higher in the north than the rest of England, leading researchers to conclude that ‘the north is not benefitting from economic growth’.

Two high-profile policy strategies to tackle the north-south divide have come to the fore in recent years. 

 The first is the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy first put forward by the chancellor George Osborne in 2014. There were two flagship schemes by the strategy. The first was HS2, a high-speed rail network linking the cities of London and Manchester. The second was the extension of devolution to northern ‘city-regions’, the most significant of which was in Manchester in 2016. Colloquially labelled ‘DevoManc’, the government and the leadership of the Greater Manchester Local authorities agreed to the leadership of an elected city-region Mayor with responsibility for policing and franchised transport. Greater Manchester local authority leaders then formed the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which established the Mayor’s cabinet and control over budgetary aspects of business and skills enhancement.

The Second strategy of ‘Levelling Up’ is the newest government iteration of community enhancement and regional inequality resolution. Although not specifically focused on the

North of England, its aim is to reduce geographical inequalities through investment funds into local-level projects and in driving forward institutional investment. Funding will be awarded to local authorities who will manage its investment. Such is the government’s commitment to the strategy, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was renamed the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities in 2021.

As we can see, the divide between the north and south of England has long been present on the political agenda. But what has worked, or more importantly, what hasn’t?

This year’s most significant development with regards to northern investment was the scrapping of the HS2 railway line from Birmingham to Manchester. Announced at the Conservative Party Conference, ironically in Manchester itself, Rishi Sunak said that funds that would have been used to further the HS2 project to its intended destination will be redirected to other northern transportation investment in a new project called ‘Network North’. There is significant, if not profound contradiction in this announcement. 

HS2’s decommissioning from Birmingham to Manchester was announced on the basis of the spiralling cost of the project; from an estimated overall cost of £37.5 billion in 2015 to an estimated £108.9 billion. £36 billion in the ‘Network North’ Project will allegedly come from the ‘re-routed’ HS2 Funding. Already the government has announced £235 million in re-routed HS2 funding to go toward fixing potholes. Reasonably, one would believe that as part of the project this funding will resurface roads in northern cities. However, this redirection of funding from HS2 is being used in London, in which £22.5bn has already been spent in providing HS2’s ‘Phase One’

The ‘levelling up’ strategy is an ambitious project to tackle regional inequality across the country. However, it’s lack of specificity in terms of its goals for the north-south divide leaves little expectation for better outcomes in the North of England. In the allocation of funding via formulae, ‘levelling up’ programs allocate funding based on economic output rather than income deprivation. This means that rural areas with high income households but low economic output due to working elsewhere are given more funding than urban areas with significant income deprivation. The Institute for government outlines that this places an emphasis on levelling up as an exercise to increase productivity, rather than overall individual economic wellbeing.

The solution to regional equality in the UK seems far from being achieved. However, regional devolution or expansion of local government appears as a possible solution. Mayoral combined authorities have already yielded advancements in Northern infrastructure and transport. In Manchester, the Bee Network, a public transport system comparable to London’s TFL network, has already began its integration into the city region and is expected to be completed by 2024. The Liverpool Combined Authority have introduced a £500 million fleet of publicly funded trains. In comparison to poor central government transport planning for the North of England, combined authorities are extremely well positioned to deliver publicly funded transport systems that cater to the specific needs of local people in urban and suburban areas. 

 Additionally, they have also provided a platform for increased advocacy for Northern interests. Elected Metro-Mayor for Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, notably challenged the government’s introduction of a tier 3 lockdown in Manchester without the provision of adequate financial support for working people. Not only do further devolutionary models provide practical benefits, but also provide another opportunity for local representation.

The introduction of greater local-level devolution projects undoubtedly poses a significant constitutional question that requires further exploration. The increasing quasi-federal nature of the UK’s public administration is already acknowledged in its current form. A fully federal United Kingdom could be on the horizon. Nevertheless, what is not in doubt is the necessity of a comprehensive policy to address regional equality. With the limitations of both the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Levelling-Up’ Programs, ‘DevolutioNorth’ could be the next step for Northern empowerment that is so desperately needed.


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