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Greater devolution is not an option, it is a necessity

The Northern Research Group's summer conference will take place in Doncaster in June (Alamy)

4 min read

England stands at a crossroads, a moment teetering between a continued centralisation of power and the promise of a democratic evolution – devolution.

The UK, as it stands, is one of the most centralised countries in the world. This means decisions impacting our local communities, businesses and resources are often made hundreds of miles away, detached from the lived realities of those they affect.

The call for change is not radical; it is pragmatic. It's about redistributing power, bringing it closer to the people. It's about recognising the unique challenges and opportunities each region presents and tailoring responses accordingly. A 'devo-max' approach would allow us to address regional inequalities and unlock the vast potential that lies within every corner of our nation.

For too long, power, compressed in Whitehall, has seen the north being left behind. Whether it be regarding costs or convenience, projects and funding have too long bypassed north of London and been hoarded by the south. 

Change must happen. 

Centralisation isn’t working and hasn’t worked for people across the North of England for too long. Local decision makers are best placed to allocate funding to where local people will see the biggest changes to their lives.

And we don't have to imagine the potential benefits - they're already coming to fruition across the country. The Tees Valley, for instance, embraced devolution and saw remarkable developments. There, the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside London took shape with a vision to create 20,000 jobs and contribute an additional £1 billion per year to the local economy over the next 25 years. These are not abstract numbers; they represent families with stable incomes, prosperous local businesses, and vibrant, thriving communities.

In Cornwall, devolution empowered the region to tailor solutions to its unique needs. With over 11,000 businesses accessing locally organised support programmes and a newly launched investment fund addressing local market gaps, the benefits of on-the-ground decision-making became undeniable.

So, the question we need to ask ourselves is not whether we can afford to devolve more powers, but whether we can afford not to.

But it's not just economic benefits that make the case for devolution. It also revitalises our democracy. When people see that their voices have a tangible impact on their local policies, it restores faith in the democratic process. It fosters a sense of ownership and civic responsibility, a bond between communities and their governance that centralised systems often fail to nurture.

Yet, these success stories are but pockets in a still largely centralised nation. If we don't act, we risk not only missing out on the potential economic and democratic benefits but also perpetuating regional disparities. A country where opportunities and growth are limited to certain regions while others are left behind is not sustainable.

So, the question we need to ask ourselves is not whether we can afford to devolve more powers, but whether we can afford not to.

The time for 'devo-max' has come. It is not just an option; it's a necessity. It's time we empower our regions, giving them the reins to steer their path. It's time we decentralise decision-making, bringing it closer to the people it impacts. It's time we move towards a more inclusive, balanced, and representative model of governance.

Along with this maximum devolution approach, we must have maximum scrutiny. One of the major gripes people have with devolved mayors is the lack of scrutiny, and I hear that. While I fundamentally believe that the power of local decision makers is vital, we must make sure these local leaders can be properly held to account. 

If we are effectively creating a government minister for each region, in fact, often with more power than government ministers themselves, why are they not scrutinised in the same way? Therefore, mayors should be questioned by a group including MPs and council leaders, each month, in the same way ministers are called to the despatch box and questioned in Parliament. These question times must be televised, and local people must be able to watch. 

As head of the Northern Research Group, my call to action to the government and indeed to all of us, is to champion this cause. Let us strive for an England where every voice, in every corner, truly matters. Devolution has the potential to revitalise our regions, invigorate our democracy and create a future that truly belongs to us all. Let's seize it.

John Stevenson is the Conservative MP for Carlisle and Chair of the Northern Research Group.

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