The Transport Summit in Leeds last month culminated in calls for a ‘Council of the North’.
The Institute for Public Policy Research’s work has shown there are a number of advantages of collaborating in this way. As Andy Burnham said at the summit, look at the way devolution has emboldened other areas such as London, Northern Ireland and Scotland, giving them a stronger political voice. An important task for the Council of the North would therefore be to strengthen the north’s negotiating position, and wrest back control and cash from Westminster.
We’ve suggested this process could begin by establishing a forum to gather organisations that already represent northern interests to explore the potential for greater collaboration.
Whilst some will argue a Council of the North is in danger of becoming just another talking shop, it’s worth pointing out we are one of the few developed countries that lack a regional tier of government. A strong regional institution with an awareness of local context could help to better direct economic development and strategic infrastructure decisions than a London-based civil service.
A Council of the North could help to restore a greater sense of control amongst citizens as well as elected representatives. It may be a leap to say high levels of political dissatisfaction equate to a call for greater devolution but recent events have strengthened the argument for devolution away from Westminster, particularly when its capacity is exhausted by Brexit.
But a Council of the North cannot be isolated from the views of northern people. That any ‘Council of the North’ would be proximate to the people it represents may help them to feel like they have more control, but this could be further supported through the development of a Northern Citizen’s Assembly. Used extensively in countries like Ireland and Canada, the assembly would comprise 252 people, chosen by sortition. People from across the north could discuss the key issues facing people in the north and to scrutinise the policies of the council as well as central government.
The development of political structures could help politics in the north to become much more inclusive in terms of gender, ethnicity and disability. It is beyond belief that in 2017, representation in combined authorities is overwhelmingly male and pale. As recent IPPR research on gender has suggested, it is much easier to actively plan for greater inclusiveness whilst establishing new political structures than retrofitting them.
The Transport Summit demonstrated how powerful the North can be when it pulls together. The North was once at the forefront of the industrial revolution. Now it wants lead a new revolution, but this time it’s about forging a new democratic future.
Sarah Longlands, senior research fellow, IPPR North