From devolution to Northern Powerhouse: is this the Age of Regions?

Sunday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Battle for our Cities

Regionalism is the new big idea in British politics. From granting greater powers to the Scottish Parliament after the referendum to the idea of ‘Devo Manc’ – part of George Osborne’s aim to create a ‘northern powerhouse’ in England – politicians increasingly advocate various forms of devolution to regenerate the country and re-engage the electorate. In the run-up to the general election, Ed Miliband too promised to end a ‘century of centralisation’ by passing more power to ‘towns, cities and country regions’. We’ve been here before. From Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham of the nineteenth century to the municipal socialism of the 1980s, city councils were once bastions of power and often a vibrant part of British political life. But the political and economic influence of our regional cities has declined significantly. Most famously, the Thatcher administration abolished whole layers of local bureaucracy, branding them ‘a wasteful and unnecessary tier of government’, while public enthusiasm for local democracy has also declined over recent years. Moreover, the electorate has shown little appetite for bringing more power to regions. In 2004, the northeast of England voted overwhelmingly against a devolved assembly, dubbed John Prescott’s ‘£25 million white elephant’.

Nevertheless, think-tank ResPublica, in its Power, People and Places: A Manifesto for Devolution, positions Britain’s key cities at the forefront of generating ‘both economic growth and public service transformation’. Supporters of ‘place-based devolution’ are making comparisons with the great city states of the Renaissance, with much talk of cultural as well as economic regeneration. And as for democracy, local government group COSLA argues that ‘decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible’, implying that if politicians are literally geographically closer, they will be more in touch with the electorate. But what would it take to create dynamic regional government after so many years of decline? George Osborne has announced he will fund a ‘Great Exhibition’ to celebrate the art, culture and design of the north of England, and recently announced £78m for Tony Wilson’s Madchester Factory to be turned into a new ‘ultra-flexible arts space’. But how does that sit with cuts to regional arts and the fate of Birmingham library that has announced it has stopped buying books? 

Are we about to witness the birth of new city states? What about the idea of politics as embodying shared interests and principles that transcend postcode? Does devolving power to larger city-regions challenge the ideals of the modern parliamentary system, especially the notion of having a centralising sovereignty in a single place to subordinate parochial interests and prejudices for the good of society as a whole? What is the difference between contemporary regionalism and traditional local democracy?

Professor Alan Hudson
director of leadership and public policy programmes, University of Oxford; visiting professor, Shanghai Jiaotong University

Dr Simon Knight
senior youth work practitioner; vice chair, Play Scotland

Mark Morrin
research associate, ResPublica; co-author, Devo Max - Devo Manc

Jonathan Schofield
editor-at-large, Manchester Confidential; editor, Manchester Books Limited

Roxana Silbert
artistic director, Birmingham REP Theatre

Niall Crowley
freelance designer and writer

Produced by
Niall Crowley freelance designer and writer
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