North East Devolution and Levelling Up
Penshaw Monument

The slow death of regional policy

Is yet another new approach to regional economic development – a very localised one based on communities – on the way if Labour wins the next general election?

That is the implication of the scant information about devolution and levelling up in a speech by Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer in Gateshead today.

‘I don’t think you can achieve it [a strong economy] with the false choice running through the government’s levelling up agenda – of north versus south, city versus town. That’s not partnership,’ he said.

‘We need every community to make a contribution to growing national prosperity’.

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said Sir Keir, ‘is looking at new forms of economic devolution for us, so that every city, every town, every place has the chance they deserve to contribute to our economy.’

COMMENT

Sir Keir’s speech, coming at a time of uncertainty over what the Conservative government’s approach to devolution and levelling up will be under its new leader – discussed here today – means both main parties and the North East are back to Square One. Regional and/or local development as understood since the end of the 20th century is being subjected to a slow death in which both parties have a hand in their different ways.

The region has been subjected to constantly changing economic development policies for at least 24 years now – a regional development agency, two local enterprise partnerships, two and then three combined authorities and two mayoral devolution deals.

Various parts of the region are now negotiating a new expanded deal for either six or seven local authority areas, with perhaps a separate deal for Durham – or perhaps not.

Residents have been asked as various times to think of their region as extending from Berwick to Redcar, from Berwick to Barnard Castle, from Berwick to the Tyne, from the Tyne to Barnard Castle, from the Tyne to the Wear, from Darlington to Hartlepool, or simply across the Land of the Prince Bishops.

They, or at least their local leaders, have been asked to think in terms of  functional economic areas (FEAs), which sound as if they have some objective reality but in fact can be redefined to suit political expediency, as happened in 2016 when a previously unknown entity called North of Tyne seceded from the North East, splitting the economy along the line of the river.

Now it seems, if Labour comes to power, we are to have communities. But what in the context of the North East and its economy, is a community? Each reader can decide from him or herself. Each answer is as good as any other.

One conclusion that does seem clear from Sir Keir speech, however, is that communities will be relatively small compared with regions or even combined authorities or FEAs. He spoke of ‘every city, every town, every place.’

While Sir Keir may have been seeking in his speech to draw a distinction between Labour’s policy, whatever it is, and the Conservatives’, in fact it looks more like Tory localism taken to an even greater length.

Both parties now recognise – as they must in their own electoral interests – that there are places all over the country that are economically lagging and in need of support. The Tories are handing our levelling up funds everywhere from the northern red wall to the south coast and Labour now looks like spreading the jam equally thinly. That may be justified, but regional policy it is not.

Regionalism was introduced to England by the Blair government in 1998, replaced by localism by the coalition government in 2010 and has been progressively undermined by Conservative governments at Westminster and Labour town halls in the North East since 2015. It now looks like being killed off altogether either by underfunding by the Tories or in the name of a new theory of communalism if Labour wins the next election. Meanwhile the North East economy continues to struggle.