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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Northern mayors risk Brexit Babel

Last week the three Northern metro mayors, Andy Burnham, Ben Houchen and Steve Rotheram, held a first meeting with Brexit secretary David Davis. This meeting has been a long time coming. Back in July 2016, a number of Northern city leaders wrote to Davis asking for a meeting and it took 6 months for government to send a negative response. In March, through parliamentary questions, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram got the Brexit Secretary to agree to meet with them if and when they were elected. It has taken another 7 months to hold him to his word.

Little wonder then that, as reported in the MJ, the leaders of the so-called core cities took matters into their own hands and gone to Michel Barnier direct. Judith Blake, leader of Leeds Council and core cities chair, said ‘It should not be left to national politicians alone to determine Brexit. Cities have a big role in making Brexit work for everyone.’

I really don’t blame any of them. But ad hoc meetings with David Davis play into his hands. He gets the credit for being seen to be consulting with cities and regions outside London while vast swathes of the North and the rest of England go unrepresented. Indeed, it is precisely those unrepresented towns and cities – less so than the big cities – whose demand it was to “take back control”. Neither the Northern mayors, let alone the core city leaders, speak on behalf of the large majority of Northerners and much as they are right to seize opportunities to have a say, they would be far more powerful if they could show they represented all of the North and had a clear set of negotiating asks - much more like Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon.

Officials have openly admitted that the last thing they want is for local and regional players to start taking a view on negotiations. Better we should go away a prepare for the consequences. And yet for the North - one fifth of the economy and arguably that with the most at stake – to go without a single, coherent voice is to be divided and ruled. The sooner the Northern mayors and city leaders come together to form a Council of the North, the sooner our voice will be as loud as the GLA, City of London and the Scottish government. Until then, we’re building Brexit Babel with the rest.