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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Is a Council of the North on the horizon?

Tomorrow, city leaders from across the North of England will gather to discuss ways to improve pan-northern collaboration. This is timely if not overdue. The prospect of Northern Ireland getting special dispensations on EU trade has seen Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson join forces in demanding that what might be good enough for Northern Ireland should be good enough for Scotland too. Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones and London mayor Sadiq Khan have made similar appeals. So high time Northern leaders got their acts together to show their citizens what ‘taking back control’ could really mean.

The notion of a Council of the North dates back to Richard III but its most recent incarnation comes on the back of the momentum generated by the Northern Powerhouse agenda. But what form might it take? There are four basic propositions on the table:

A Northern Convention

The smart money is on some kind of gathering of civic and business leaders next Spring. With the cancellation of the more commercial UK Northern Powerhouse Conference in February, there is a clear gap in the calendar for some form of big event linked to the Great Exhibition of the North. There will clearly be issues as to who gets invited – and who does the inviting – but while it has the benefit of offering the most inclusive approach, it may find it difficult securing agreement on policies and priorities, and then building political clout.

An ‘N11 Summit’

First mooted by IPPR North back in 2012, the idea of bringing together political leaders and Local Enterprise Partnership chairs from each of the 11 LEP areas of the North seems a straightforward and suitably representative option. There will of course be issues as to which political leaders should represent each LEP area but those matters will have to be thrashed out locally. Voluntary sector leaders are also likely to demand a place at the table. But whether a body of 22 or 33 delegates, it might be a neat and tidy way to get a representative body up and running with the minimum of fuss.

A Council of the North

It could easily be argued that the North already has an indirectly elected representative body: the Transport for the North Executive Board comprises the leaders of its 19 constituent authorities, it has clear protocols for meeting and voting and will soon take on statutory status. Of course, it doesn’t want to be distracted from its primary purpose, but there should be very little to stop it finishing its formal transport business only then to convene on a consecutive day to discuss wider issues of economic development. Local politics and personality seems to stand in the way of this option for now, but pressure from business and the level of political clout such a body might bring will likely move this option up the agenda as the alternatives get short shrift in Westminster.

A Northern Citizens Assembly

For true democrats and purists, the North has a fine pedigree for democratic innovation and more radical reform. If electoral representative party politics is the fossil fuel of 21st century democracy, perhaps we should be looking for something better altogether. A Northern Citizens Assembly, as outlined by IPPR North, would involve the selection of 252 members by drawing lots from the electoral role. Assembly members would serve for a full year on two assemblies of four days each but the Assembly would be permanent unlike other experiments of this nature. It could hold any Council, Summit or Convention to account as well as engaging with other pan-Northern bodies, LEPs and Combined Authorities.

These ideas are not mutually exclusive but pragmatism and capacity mean that for now leaders should look to dedicate their energies to a single vehicle to garner support and boost a Northern voice on the economy. Indeed the remit of any pan-Northern body should be relatively limited but should include:

  • the implications of Brexit on the Northern economy
  • the northern transport strategy
  • sector-led work based on the Northern Independent Economic Review, including on digital skills, health innovation and advanced manufacturing
  • a northern energy strategy
  • an attractive trade and investment prospectus

Two further considerations:

City leaders should avoid falling into the clutches of any one of the many business lobby groups currently circling the terrain. While it is a healthy sign that such groups are playing such a prominent role in stimulating Northern Powerhouse debate and crucial they should continue to play a dynamic role, in post-crisis, post-referendum Britain, civic and democratic legitimacy are critical and any whiff of narrow or vested interests will be fatal.

They should also take care to decide upon a way forward that includes those towns and cities that are not part of the Core Cities Group. Again, Brexit has made clear that Northerners are not prepared to accept an agenda driven by a city elite. In economic terms, too many of the North’s most important assets lie outside our big city hubs and for that reason alone they need a place at the table.

Whatever is decided, the urgency with which it becomes a reality is paramount. As the nation moves towards EU trade negotiations, and as industrial strategy starts to cohere, the North of England needs a clear and legitimate mandate and a loud and strategic voice. A cultural jamboree sometime next summer will not cut the mustard.