The Brexit vote was a protest against Westminster and demand for change. If any political party wants to win in post-Brexit Britain, they need to show serious commitment to the devolution of powers to regions across the UK.
It was no surprise to myself that my home region, north-east England, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The North East has received the most from the EU development funds since 2007 and even with millions of pounds of funding pledged in the coming years, the people of the North East rejected this vital funding to protest against Westminster. They want a region that is free to make their own decisions, and avoid the unfitting solutions forced upon them by a political establishment which never really cared about or benefited them.
Since the 1970s the economic imbalance of the UK has been growing faster with the increase in difference in the GDP of regions greater in the UK than any other major European country and even the United States. This regional disparity of wealth in the UK was ultimately what infuriated many voters in the North East and the rest of the Britain, as they were told by Remain campaigners that their regions were better off economically in the EU, despite themselves seeing vast regional inequalities grow.
It is not just the unevenness of GDP across regions which is the problem, it is the inequalities it produces. It is totally unjust that a male in Blackpool should expect to live over eight years shorter than men in the City of London or that approximately 50 per cent of children claiming free school meals achieve no passes above a D grade in a global powerhouse like the UK. It is the economic factors which are the major factor in both these cases and they can be alleviated. Currently the centralised London system is not providing the personalised policies for regions to battle these economic struggles.
Manchester, the centre of former Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse”, is determined to fight these economic inequalities and became an inspiration for devolution: local councils of Greater Manchester have come together to create the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Combined authorities allow groups of local councils to join together and share powers from Whitehall, powers they would not be able to attain as a lone authority. This group of Manchester councils have already been able to wrench controls over transport, employment and housing from Whitehall.
Following their lead, there are now combined authorities for the Liverpool City-region, the North East, Sheffield City-region and West Yorkshire, all hoping to achieve and build on the same success. Combined authorities will be able to make better use of their own resources than Whitehall, simply because they know the problems their region faces. In Oxford the average home costs 16.1 times as much as the average local salary, while Hastings has one of the lowest average local wages. No two places share the exact shame issues and combined authorities will be able to create strategies personalised to each of our regions to combat the issues each region faces, an ability Whitehall does not have.
Britain is lagging behind in the process of devolution. Across all of Europe many countries have devolved regional authorities and parliaments. A prominent example is Germany, where the federal government holds decision-making power over national issues such as the treasury, defence and foreign affairs, while it shares the responsibilities of civil law and public health with each of the 16 German states. The rest of the duties are up to regional establishments, however, all states must follow a legal framework set out by the government, but how they achieve the government’s aim is at their discretion. We may have voted against regional parliaments, however, we should take note from the German system.
We have to be careful though. We need to guarantee that our devolved authorities are transparent and accountable. In 2017, Britain will see elections across six regions to elect mayors who will have executive powers over transport, housing and employment. Mayors have the potential to be true representatives of their community, or they could be slaves of Whitehall, and this is where we must confirm there are the democratic processes, perhaps even local referendums, to keep them responsible to the people.
Our power hungry political establishment has avoided the conversation of devolution, in fear of losing their power and their status. Everything is now different. The Brexit vote showed real desire for change, and undoubtedly devolution will allow regions to create specific policies to provide sustained economic growth and raise the living standards of their citizens. If Theresa May wants to prove that she really wants to “make Britain a country that works for everyone,” she must go and oppose the power hogging institutions and encourage the formation of local councils into combined authorities, beginning to deliver powers to them from Whitehall.