Devolution beyond the big cities

Forget the London perspective. Remember outlying towns. And build homes, instead of shops
October 6, 2016
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At the Labour Conference in Liverpool, change was very definitely in the air. This related not just to the newly settled mood over the party’s leadership. Change was also evident in Labour's attitude to devolution in England. A year ago in Brighton, the phrase “Northern Powerhouse” was automatically greeted by muttering about George Osborne. This year, he is gone, and the Northern Powerhouse idea provoked a different response. In fact, it drew some of the largest crowds on the Conference fringe.

I left Liverpool uplifted by the realisation that all sides of the party are now ready to embrace devolution, and put a Labour stamp upon it. For those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, devolution in England presents a chance for early implementation of his policies, such as the building of council homes and the rolling back of NHS privatisation. For those who voted for Owen Smith, elected Labour Mayors in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands, alongside Sadiq Khan in London, could remind people of the real and positive difference that Labour can make to people's lives when it holds power.

Of course, both sides are right. And that is why devolution presents such a potent opportunity for Labour—not just to unite and to renew but, much more importantly, to change fundamentally the governance of our country and make it more equal. In the Referendum, people certainly voted for change on immigration, but I also heard in the result a far deeper cry for change in the way the country is run. The dominance of the London perspective has failed many parts of our country. It has given us an industrial policy focused on services when the North needed a focus on manufacturing. It has given us a housing policy focused on owner-occupation when the North needed new council homes. And it has given us an education policy obsessed with the university route to the exclusion of new thinking on technical education.

To succeed, devolution in England must achieve a real break with this flawed thinking which assumes that there can be only one approach for the whole country—an approach dictated by the interests of London and the South-East. Devolution will fail if it is simply about running public services slightly better at the edges. It must be about breaking the stale Westminster consensus, and promoting a very different vision of what Greater Manchester and the North can be. I’ll be launching my own campaign for the new Manchester mayoralty this month, and seeking to do just that.

I believe that in the end, it is only a society in which young people have hope that is going to be strong, sustainable and self-sufficient. Westminster has made young people bear the brunt of deficit reduction, presumably on the basis that the old need to be protected because more of them turn out to vote. The trouble with this cynical thinking is that it strips the next generation of hope, storing up greater social problems in future. How can it possibly be right that, last year, 28 per cent of young people referred for mental health support were turned away receiving nothing? That is a national scandal. I have made a commitment that no child who needs mental health support will be turned away, and I am prepared to take difficult decisions to deliver it. I will also create a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships across Greater Manchester as part of a drive to improve technical education, and will work to provide subsidised travel for 16-18 year-olds.

I will change the failed Westminster approach to regeneration. For too long, all of the focus has been on city centres. When civil servants are asked to do something for the North, they tick the box by funding a project in city centre Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool. Places like Rochdale, Oldham or Wigan never really feature on their radar.

In Greater Manchester, seven out of our 10 boroughs voted to leave the EU. What all of these areas have in common is that they are former industrial areas which saw collapsing house prices and factory closures in the early 1990s, and have never received any real help from Westminster to deal with the huge social change which followed, including with the expansion of the EU in 2004. All of these places are proud towns which see themselves as very different to the centre of Manchester. As welcome as the new investment pouring into the city-centre has been in the last 20 years, it hasn't trickled down to them. With patchy and costly public transport, people in these towns struggle to take advantage of the associated employment.

Devolution to Greater Manchester will succeed if it can demonstrate real benefits to the parts of our city-region that Westminster has neglected; if it can develop a convincing vision for those parts of Salford, Bolton and Stockport that feel forgotten, and put civic pride back into these places. This is partly about the development of a convincing industrial strategy for the whole of Greater Manchester. But it is also also about using the immense soft power that comes through the office of Mayor to empower people at local level to improve their localities.

One of the things that unites the proud towns that circle Manchester is that the arrival of the internet and changes to shopping patterns have left them with more retail space than they need. This is certainly true of my constituency in Leigh. The fierce civic pride in our town is eroded by the number of empty units and charity shops. In the past, all of the focus when it comes to regeneration has been on throwing up even more new commercial buildings. But I have long thought that approach does not provide answers for our smaller towns. Instead, we should think about clearing poor quality retail units and office blocks, and replacing them with new council homes and open green spaces. This would make them much more attractive and pleasant places to live and breathe new life into them.

If devolution to England's regions brings no real change to the places that voted Leave, then it could deepen the crisis of confidence in our politics. The Autumn Statement gives the Government an opportunity to make a down-payment on the building of the Northern Powerhouse and I urge Ministers to grab it. I am under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. But I am ready to leave Westminster because, as the Referendum revealed, the status quo simply isn't working for too many people and too many places. Devolution offers the opportunity to dispense with the outdated thinking that has failed them—and that is exactly what I plan to do.