Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, delivered the keynote speech at the first Brexit North Summit, hosted by IPPR North and City-REDI. He calls for devolution to the English regions to go further.
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I know that people have different views about the events of 23 June 2016.
My personal view is that we asked the wrong question and then got the wrong answer.
We live in the most politically centralised democracy in the Western world and we have the most geographically unbalanced economy in Europe.
I don’t believe these two things are mutually exclusive.
In fact, I would argue that they are intrinsically linked.
These two incontrovertible factors have compounded the disconnect many feel with our political system.
So it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that when we ask people questions on a matter of historical, national importance that some took the chance to express their anger and gave politicians, of all persuasions, a good kicking.
For many people, there is a crisis of confidence in our political structures. For far too long, governments – of all political persuasions – have viewed policy-making decisions through the prism of what is in the best interest of London and the South East, sometimes to the detriment of the North.
I saw it with my own eyes, as I spent seven years in Westminster as Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton and I was astonished by how little of what happened within those vaulted halls was being done for the people I was there to represent.
Much has been said of the “Westminster Bubble” and – while it means different things to different people – I believe generations of policy-making tailored to the whims of the political classes rather than the needs of normal, working people sowed the seeds discontent that led to Brexit.
From transport: where the North of England is routinely overlooked in favour of projects down south.
To education: where Ofsted’s own figures show that there are 135,000 more secondary school children being taught in under-performing schools in the North and Midlands than in the South.
From the effects of de-industrialisation: where communities have been left to fend for themselves in the absence of the industry that once defined them.
To the lack of opportunities for young people across the North: that according to England's Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield, leaves our young people with:
“A lack of confidence, uncertainty and low expectation, isolated communities with narrow and poor job prospects, poor school results and poor connections to further and higher education”
Time and time again, Westminster has found itself unable – or unwilling – to find solutions to the problems facing ordinary people’s lives.
It is why I am convinced more than ever that the solutions to the biggest challenges faced by our society lie in our regions. And it isn’t just me, the former Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg argues that: “cities are where the problem is and cities are where the solution is.”
The Liverpool City Region has a unique relationship with Europe and it is for that reason that it bucked the national trend and voted – albeit narrowly – to Remain.
Our city region’s current renaissance owes so much to the scale of support we received from Brussels at a time when a Tory government sat around the cabinet table and actually contemplated the managed decline of our city.
How could you event contemplate mothballing a place that was once the second city of Empire?
Since 1994, we have received in excess of £2bn in investment from our friends in Europe, throwing into sharp contrast the £900m we will receive by 2045 through our devolution agreement.
- Enabled the regeneration of our historic coastline;
- Transformed Liverpool John Lennon airport;
- Brought thousands of jobs to our city region – many it has to be said in areas that voted Leave; and
- Provided the backing for essential improvements to our public transport network
In spite of all this, as I was knocking on doors for Remain, I felt a prevailing sense that there was a crisis of confidence in our political structures.
And, I spoke to countless people who were voting Leave and for the vast majority of them it wasn’t about bendy bananas or even immigration; but a sense that for too long decisions were being made for them, often by people who couldn’t point to Kirkby or Kirkdale on a map, never mind truly understand the needs or – crucially – the aspirations of those who live there.
The temptation is for Remainers like myself to deride taking back control as nothing more than an empty soundbite, with no intellectual underpinning, but we ignore the power of that message at our peril.
We have to accept that one of the key drivers for Brexit was the emotional resonance of taking back control; because there is a deep human need to feel that we are being listened to, that we do have agency, that we can control our own destiny.
And it is the biggest case for why taking back control cannot simply be an argument for repatriating powers from Brussels and Strasbourg to Westminster and Whitehall.
We are almost two years on since the people went to the polls and decided that our future lay outside of the EU, yet there is a sense that those in the corridors of power neither understand the motivation for voting leave, nor do they care to really find out why 52% did.
Instead of the outcome of the referendum acting as a wake-up call to the political establishment, they have reverted to type.
More interested in scoring points against political rivals than finding a deal that will protect jobs; and posturing over blue passports than finding a deal that will support the needs of regions, like my own, in the absence of European funding.
Now, I don’t make a habit of quoting Conservatives very often but in the aftermath of the referendum, Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised that her government would “do everything [we] can to give you more control over your lives.”
It is time that she makes good on this promise.
Because while Westminster doesn’t want to engage in the root causes of Brexit, in the Liverpool City Region, we are already starting to address some of these key institutionalised problems:
Disaffection, division and disconnection.
In March, we launched our pioneering Households into Work initiative to support 800 families – with two or more people in long-term unemployment – back into the workplace.
- Under this scheme, advocates are working with families to identify the barriers to employment and put in place a bespoke package to support individuals into the work place.
- Programmes like this can be transformative to a city region like ours with the second highest level of unemployment among major city regions and with youth unemployment running 7% higher than the national average.
- Households into Work will allow us to reach out to otherwise left behind individuals and give them a second chance to fulfil their potential through meaningful employment.
- Having the ability to find innovative solutions to the unique set of challenges we face – is far better than the one-size-fits-all, sanction first prescription to the problem of unemployment offered to us by this government.
When it comes to transport, we have shown that when given the power and resource, we can make a transformational difference to the service we deliver to our people.
- We are spending £460 million on a fleet of the most modern trains in the country – which will be publicly owned by us.
- We are examining how best we can use the new powers through the Bus Services Act 2017 – to ensure we can build an integrated transport system that works in the best interests of those who live and work in our area; and
- Between our Transforming Cities funding and money earmarked to enable passive provision for HS2, we have received £234m to improve our public transport and walking and cycling provision
And, challenging though it may be against the economic backdrop and the reluctance of the Department for Education to devolve powers (more on that later) – in the Liverpool City Region – we stand ready to deliver a skills revolution.
We have already engaged with 2000 of our businesses so as to understand their current and future needs and we are investing in initiatives to directly create 2000 additional apprenticeships, as well as creating the conditions for businesses to deliver many more.
But we need a firm commitment from central government both in terms of the resource they pass down and the power to enact change.
Take the example of the Apprenticeship Levy.
- Described by government “as a measure to boost productivity by investing in human capital” it was designed to increase the quantity and quality of apprenticeships available.
- Where businesses – with annual pay bills above £3 million – contribute to a fund, which they can then draw down money from to deliver high-quality apprenticeships.
In principle, who could argue with those that can afford to, contributing to skill up our workforce, offering young people an opportunity to enter the world work?
In practice, however, it has quite simply failed to meet its objectives:
- In the first quarter after its introduction, apprenticeship starts dropped by more than half.
- Those figures have improved since then but this is clearly very far from the intended consequence.
- But perhaps the main issue is that those businesses who pay the levy are so put off by the process of claiming it back that they are treating it as another business tax – a stealth tax - writing it off and not using it to fund apprenticeships.
- And that is why, nationally, the Open University estimates there is an eye-watering £1.28 billion underspend – an amount that could fund more than 200,000 apprenticeships.
I have repeatedly lobbied government for access to the Liverpool City Region’s share of that money.
Not for spurious reasons, but to spend it how it was intended on high-quality apprenticeships for our area.
Unfortunately, so far these calls have gone unheeded, as the culture of centralisation at the Department for Education stands in the way of meaningful change.
Michael Gove once criticised the EU for being “protectionist”, but perhaps he ought to look closer to home as the department he once ran is the most protectionist of all government departments.
This is not just about power for power’s sake.
As I have just explained:
We know what we need and we know that with more powers and more funding we can make a real impact in improving skills in our city region and for UK plc.
More real power would also enable us to make a huge difference on a broader issue which does not receive the attention it deserves.
It is one thing providing the right skills to young people, but we need to ensure that we have more control over raising standards and aspiration in our schools.
Because there is no point creating opportunities when our young people leave school, if they don’t have the requisite skills to capitalise on them
To this end, we face significant issues in the Liverpool City Region:
- There has always been a negative correlation between deprivation and academic achievement.
- The Department for Education’s own figures show that just 35% of children on Free School Meals gained five A*-C grades including English and Maths, compared with 62% of other children.
- Despite impressive growth and support from Europe, a third of our neighbourhoods are in most deprived 10% nationally
- And we see that reflected in the performance of our young people, as their attainment at the end of year 11 is below the national average in five of our six local authority areas.
In part, this is due to a cycle of underperformance and a real poverty of aspiration.
I visit schools and meet engaging, bright kids on a routine basis, yet outside of a few select schools, I hear of no aspiration to be the next Tim Berners-Lee, Sheryl Sandberg or even prime minister.
Too many of working class children in communities across the North simply believe that opportunity isn’t for someone like them. It is a truly exceptional individual in this sort of environment who can lift their head up and see a way out of the world they live in.
It is what makes the government’s present fixation with grammar schools so woefully misguided. Quite simply, they are asking themselves the wrong question and getting the wrong answer.
The policy of academisation and the introduction of free schools have significantly reduced levels of local authority accountability. Indeed, 61% of schools nationally now report directly to Regional Schools Commissioners appointed by Whitehall.
Frustratingly, neither the Combined Authority, or our constituent local councils, have the tools at our disposal to tackle this record of underachievement.
At the very least I have argued that the Regional Schools Commissioners should report to the Metro Mayors, as a step towards greater local accountability. Arguably we would want even more control but this would be a start.
We have also identified that we have a specific issue with underachievement in Maths and English at GCSE level, which has a massive knock-on effect for young people looking to study STEM subjects at a higher level.
The Government’s Industrial Strategy has identified £500 million to support English and Maths in our schools.
We need the Government to radically restructure its funding methodology to ensure that region’s like ours with particular needs are fairly supported through funds like this.
I am calling on government to allocate this funding to areas with a proven, demonstrable need rather than simply on a per-capita basis.
Clearly, this also needs to apply to the much-vaunted Shared Prosperity Fund. Given that over the five years from 2014 to 2019, the city region will have received around £200 million in support from the EU, we need to ensure that we receive our fair share of the fund.
We are the fastest growing economy outside London - we cannot jeopardise that growth by suddenly seeing that support withdrawn.
I remain strongly pro-European and my views on Brexit are well documented; but I believe it is incumbent on people like me to accept the expressed will of the people and look for opportunities within the minefield of Brexit to improve the lives of those who have been too often overlooked.
I believe my primary responsibility is to look at ways of tackling the systemic problem that has caused so many people to feel disaffected and disenfranchised and show how politics can and does matter.
That is why devolution is so important and will be even more so when we do eventually leave the EU.
In an increasingly connected world – city regions need to evolve to respond to growing competition. They remain our greatest laboratory for economic growth, innovative public policy, and results-oriented government.
In fact, it is the economic power of our metropolitan regions that is driving our nation forward, despite austerity, and can continue to do so post-Brexit.
The benefits of devolution must be recognised and powers strengthened if we are going to continue to compete in a global economy,
This is not about looked inward but working out how we can make globalisation work for communities like ours.
In some ways, as a western-facing, deep-water port with a history of trading with the world, Brexit may well bring with it significant opportunities for the Liverpool City Region.
At its root, this is what makes the argument for devolution so compelling.
The Prime Minister has said certain powers that come back from the EU should go to the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales where appropriate. This, in my view, is only right, but I question why there is no similar commitment when it comes to the English regions?
Westminster could tackle the disconnect that a large number of people clearly still feel with national politics by transferring meaningful power and resource to the regions and nations.
It may be no more complex than this – we want to make decisions on those things that are important to us, rather than have things done to us.
Further and deeper devolution, given to more areas, has to be a major part of tackling the challenge of reconnecting with those who feel that government is not about them.
It has to be about more than just the seven city regions.
In the North West we can see how well it is working for us and down the road in Greater Manchester, so why should the rest of the region miss out?
That is why just two weeks ago Andy Burnham and I backed calls for a devolution agreement for Cheshire and the terms of devolution have to go much further than they have gone so far.
If we continue as we are, then we will not just face economic uncertainty and disruption, we will also risk a further splintering in the country between those who feel that they have a stake in the future, and those who feel that they continue to be ignored.
Westminster elites and Whitehall mandarins are every bit as much to blame for people’s sense of alienation – as Brussels bureaucrats but devolution at least offers us locally the chance to do things differently.
Devolving real power to communities across the country represents the best hope of restoring people’s confidence in the political system,
It is not a panacea in itself but it could go a long way in helping to heal the rifts that divide our society. If, for no other reason than that, the government should grasp the opportunities and work with us to bring true democracy and accountability to our regions.
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