Illustration by Harry Tennant

North stars: Burnham and Rotheram’s plan for England

Two Labour mayors have a proposal for rebalancing the nation’s north and south, along with the wider UK. Can it become a reality?
June 5, 2024

In England, in this election year of 2024, it’s difficult not to feel despondent.

Austerity is in its bitter endgame, with reports that councils nationwide are collectively in debt to the tune of £97.8bn. Even the bloodbath facing what’s left of the UK’s public services will do little to shore up budgets: many authorities face the prospect of issuing Section 114 notices over the next few years—effectively declaring bankruptcy.

Presiding over this mess from Westminster, since 2010, we’ve had five prime ministers—three of them in 2022 alone. They include Liz Truss, of course, whose kamikaze economic policies crashed the financial markets and provoked huge mortgage hikes for tens of thousands of homeowners already struggling against extraordinary inflation and extortionate energy prices.

What’s more, the ongoing Covid inquiry is confirming what many already suspected: that the government’s mishandling of the pandemic was feckless at best and opportunistic, profiteering and murderous at worst.

Need I go on? I could—the catalogue of disasters is long and terrible. But the question that really needs asking is: what is to be done? Head North—billed as “a rallying cry for a more equal Britain”—puts forward some possible answers. The authors, mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and his Labour party colleague and Liverpool City Region equivalent, Steve Rotheram, propose “a ten-point plan to rewire the country” and a “move away from the mindset that Westminster is the only show in town”.

The book describes itself as “half-memoir, half-manifesto” and so is split into two parts: “Our Journey” and “Our Vision”. In the first, Burnham and Rotheram are in full bloke-down-the-pub mode, alternately narrating how they, two working-class lads from the northwest of England, became MPs before becoming mayors. They paint a stark picture of growing up in “Granadaland” under Thatcher, when “jobs were going at an alarming rate” and chancellor Geoffrey Howe recommended a policy of “managed decline” for Liverpool after the Toxteth riots of 1981. They establish the north-south divide at the outset; Burnham writes explicitly that “England was in fact two different countries”.

The second part is more urgent, telling, as it does, of Burnham and Rotheram’s entries into Westminster—and how quickly they became disillusioned with a system that prioritises party dogma over individual freedom of thought. This, for them, is encapsulated by the phenomenon of party whipping, which “disincentivises and disempowers” MPs. When it comes to voting on legislation, Rotheram notes, “the decisions have already been made for [you].”

The extra financial support made available to London during the pandemic is cited as a major driver of their new vision. “I don’t think any other episode in our political history has more starkly exposed the dark truth about life in Britain,” says Burnham. Another driver is the decades-long establishment cover-up around the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, in which 97 Liverpool football fans died: “A pivotal example of how the structures of power in this country do not work for ordinary people.”

So, again, to that question: what is to be done? The book’s 10-point plan stems from a recognition that the London-centric nature of politics and its centralised legislative structure has exacerbated—some would say, deliberately—the fiscal and social chasm between the southeast and the rest of England, as well as between England and the rest of the UK. Moving away from this awful arrangement, Burnham and Rotheram are keen to emphasise, isn’t a matter of self-interest on their part—but would benefit all parts of the country.

What they’re aiming for isn’t quite a redistribution of wealth, more a rebalancing catalysed by decentralising government and giving more autonomy to regional authorities. Full devolution is key: giving elected local leaders powers over all core domestic policy issues, along with the capabilities to raise their own funds, so that policies set by national leaders could be implemented locally in different ways according to need. 

Hand in hand with this is a Basic Law, by which each devolved region must receive equal amounts of funding. For decades, the Treasury’s Green Book—effectively its guidance on how to spend public money—has assessed potential investments with benefit-cost ratios (BCRs), which look at how quickly an investment will make a return. This means that underdeveloped or deprived areas are denied cash injections because returns would be slower, while thriving places remain perpetually attractive. Muck to t’midden, as they say round here.

Deprived areas are denied cash because returns would be slower, while thriving places remain perpetually attractive

Parliamentary reform is critical to Burnham and Rotheram’s plans: the removal of the whip system would give MPs the freedom to vote as they see fit, not as the party dictates, allowing space for nuance and consensus-building. Voting reform is key too: the book advocates for some form of proportional representation to ensure that outcomes such as 2019’s general election—when the Conservatives gained a 7.4 percentage-point increase in seats with only a 1.3 percentage-point increase in their vote, and 14.5m people voted for unelected candidates—become a thing of the past. The Lords is recognised as an essential safeguard in principle, but is in no way representative of the people when about 55 per cent of its members live in London, the southeast and the east of England; an elected “Senate of the nations and regions” would replace it, but “there is clearly a lot more detail to be worked out.”

Burnham and Rotheram also recommend opening up new possibilities to the 63 per cent of school leavers in England who don’t enter higher education. Their model, here, appears to be the growing number of pathways open to 16-year-olds in Manchester to train in areas such as design and engineering as an alternative to the national system, in which non-academic children are written off early and class snobbery persists. “I genuinely believe that someone with a high level technical qualification, such as an NVQ level 7, would be looked down on by a prospective employer compared with a graduate with a third-class honours degree from Cambridge,” says Rotheram—and he’s right.

None of this, nor any of their other ideas, which include both “Hillsborough” and “Grenfell” laws, will be achievable without the first point: a full, written constitution to “protect the important role of local government… and codify Whitehall’s responsibility to ensure that all councils have sufficient funding to carry out their statutory functions.” The UK is one of only a handful of countries—Saudi Arabia and Israel being two other glaring examples—not to have such a document, a fact that clearly needs to change.

Burnham and Rotheram’s ambitions are laudable—and, perhaps, achievable: they detail numerous successful initiatives where they have already put some of these ideas into practice. Crucially, though, they don’t claim to have all the answers. Their aim is more to work towards “a cross-party and cross-geography consensus” for overhauling an archaic, antiquated and utterly broken system. That they’re looking beyond the partisan binaries of party politics is probably the most radical thing of all.