- Oisín Phillips
Devolved Government in the North
As featured in Edition 37, available here.
By OISÍN PHILLIPS
In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, members of the public can elect both MPs to Westminster and representatives to relative legislative assemblies, along with ministers for certain devolved institutions, such as health, education, and agricultural/infrastructural affairs. For England, however, all matters concerning these areas are decided on solely by Westminster. For instance, if there is the need for a bridge to be built anywhere in England, it must be approved by the Treasury. With a population of 10.4 million people in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined, why does Northern England, with a population of 15.5 million (25.6 million if you include the Midlands), not have its own devolved government?
First, it is worth noting that the geographical area of northern England is heavily debated, with boundaries of geography, population, political opinion, or economic factors. One definition could establish the regions of North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber as the North, however, this would distance the West Midlands from northern English culture, despite the fact that they identify more with ‘The North’ than ‘The South’, albeit small in comparison to “neither North nor South”. Geographer Danny Dorling illustrates a diagonal line that stretches through the midlands. In this, however, while Worcester and Coventry are geographically more south than Leicester and Lincoln, for Dorling the former are in ‘The North’ and the latter are in ‘The South’.
Despite this confusion, people of England generally have an understanding of the North/South divide that exists in England. 71% of those surveyed by YouGov not only believed that there was a divide, but also that the North suffers more economically. Furthermore, according to the Office of National Statistics, the top 10 areas in England with the highest Gross Disposable Household Income are all in London and the South East, while the bottom 10 are all situated in the North West, Yorkshire and The Humber, and the Midlands. This economic divide illustrates the need for elected representatives that act directly for the people of the area in order to improve the economic situations that exist today.
The obvious criticism to this is that northern England already has representatives in Westminster, many more than Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. Therefore, why is there the need for a separate devolved government in northern England? The reality is that Westminster heavily favours London and South England. In addition to the fact that the last three Prime Ministers were elected from Southern constituencies, under Boris Johnson this divide is likely to increase due to his opinion that the “jam” (economic success) of London “must not be spread too thinly over the dry Ryvita” (economic depression) regions of England.
A change of Prime Minister from a more northern region wouldn’t dramatically change the situation either as there are currently 158 parliamentary constituencies in North West, North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber and 105 in the Midlands. The South still has more representation, with 270 parliamentary constituencies in the East, London, South East and South West. The problem is not based on political opinion, but rather on the political institution itself.
Moreover, COVID-19 cases have been at times disproportionately higher in northern parts of England due to more concentrated living areas as a result of low income which is much higher in the North, resulting not only in more deaths and worsening health conditions but also more severe lockdown restrictions that severely impact local businesses. While these restrictions have been necessary to contain the virus, there wouldn’t be as much a need for such restrictions if economic income were more secure.
It is because of this that the devolved government of northern England should include both the three northernmost regions of England along with the Midlands. The ministerial departments most necessary should be economy/finance, education, health, and Agricultural/infrastructural affairs, enabling northern regions to support their own communities directly, such as roads, railways, community outreach programs, mental health clinics, and schools; a stark contrast to being decided, or more likely neglected, by London.
Much like Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the people of northern England would still have a voice in Westminster, only now would they have more accurate local representation. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s proposals to shift power away from Westminster was met with criticism, citing Blair’s failed attempts of decentralisation during the 2000s. If the heavy support for Brexit found in northern England is any indicator, however, the reality is that decentralisation needs to go further. If Northerners truly ‘want their country back’, a devolved government in Northern England is the greatest means of securing it.
Image - Unsplash (William McCue)