A neo-localist England

Let England assume its shape, wrote Orwell in 1941. In a fundamental shift in power the native genius of the people had to be freed; and the inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old dispelled. His point was democratic but more so of destiny. Only by the people taking charge could transformative freedom be reached.

England faces the same challenge today but for reasons of geography: the background of today’s decision makers is the most diverse yet, but decision making remains geographically lopsided. This concentration of power in one place, one square mile, is stultifying parts of England and their trust in government.

A shape laid bare

From government to media to industry, almost all England’s establishments are focused in London. Its inner boroughs are an epicentre of decision-making: decisions affecting people and places not just up and down the country but also across the world. England is not unique in this sense, but certainly unusual in comparison to other countries of similar size. London is a “capital of globalisation” and proud. But so is New York, one of the many great cities of the United States.

England’s peculiar over-centralisation, argues the Economist, “poisons the country’s politics” and was an important factor in the Brexit vote. When a decision is made hundreds of miles away it is reasonable to question whether it has been done so in your place and community’s best interests. Indeed a recent study found that only eighteen percent of British people thought the government prioritises their concerns. Seventeen percent believed decisions about public services were made better nationally as opposed to locally. Just thirty-eight percent thought their local area has a fair share of the success enjoyed by the country as a whole.

Through the devolution agenda and now the industrial strategy, establishments are being broken up. New places and people are taking charge. But the pace is slow and resistance tough. A case in point is the rather laughable suggestion by Channel 4 executives that moving its operations out of London would damage its creativity and independence.

Institutions in place

So who, or more accurately which places, should take charge? England’s six metro-mayors are now a few months into their tenures and London onto its third mayor. Each, with varying scales of influence and profile, are making daily decisions in the interests of their place. In Greater Manchester a regional spatial plan has enabled a long-term direction of land for new homes and businesses. In Tees Valley the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of London has been set up to help regenerate the SSI steelworks site.

All are writing their own industrial strategies, speaking for their place’s economic needs on both a domestic and global front, able to set in place the policies to attract the right people and investment to their place.

Yet the majority of England’s places, comprising just over thirty-six million people, have no person to make these decisions. A patchwork of places with the power to make their resident’s lives better: most without. In what other functions of the state have whole swathes of the country been so ignored?

In London I can travel on a bus, one part of a transport network controlled by the mayor, from one side of the city to the other for £1.50 without needing to hold any cash. In Essex it takes more than a five-pound note to get from my mum’s village to the town of Colchester, half-an-hour away. If the bus comes at all that is. Why is it acceptable for a resident of London to have a local custodian of their living standards, but not someone in Essex?

What is needed is institutional equality. In Germany, for instance, each state has its own constitution and government. Even the Saarland, with a population at the last count of just under one million people, has eight ministers responsible for issues such as the economy, finance and European affairs. A business operating in Germany can engage with municipal government knowing a decision will be made and things done. In most of England the only power is to create another conversation.

To be clear, new institutions should be created along neo-localist lines, not localist. Economic governance needs to be done at a scale which is big enough to influence factors such as labour markets; and yet local enough to respond quickly to economic and social change. This means ignoring the boundaries of district councils and following those of strategic authorities (i.e. city regions and counties). It also means greater clarity from central government on the means by which local empowerment is achieved: the back-door deal making which characterised the localism agenda of the coalition era should end.

Taking charge

Compared to their international counterparts, England’s metro-mayors are relatively weak in their influence. For instance Bill de Biasio, Mayor of New York, controls a $70 billion budget. Marcelo Ebrard, a former mayor of Mexico City, legalised abortion and introduced gay marriage in his city.

While in England social issues such as abortion should, of course, only be determined at a national level, a political paradigm now at ease with the notions of devolution and economic intervention represents an opportunity. The role and potential of England’s metro-mayors and county leaders should be strengthened to further improve local living standards and economic growth.

For instance, immigration policy. The number of international students at the University of Sunderland dropped by forty-five percent between 2013/14 and 2015/16. If Tyne and Wear city region had some control of local student visa issuance, might the outward flow of international students have been stemmed?

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, has established a public homelessness fund, donating fifteen percent of his salary in the process. This is a great cause, helping to tackle one of the city-region’s most pressing issues. But, with greater mayoral fiscal powers, there would be potential for genuinely transformative funding. For instance, people across Los Angeles County recently voted for the introduction of a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for homelessness prevention and housing services. Why shouldn’t the electorates of England’s city-regions and counties be given the opportunity to vote on the same?

Give place a chance

Orwell’s call for England to assume its real shape was a call to arms. A neo-localist agenda would bring profound change to the way England is governed, establishing new centres of power in the interests of places and their people. However it is not an attempt to overhaul the economic order. It is neither a utopian vision and nor is it a purely technocratic agenda.

What would it look like in practice? No more banal, titbit references to a Northern Powerhouse, but a firm rooting in government’s industrial strategy. City and county leaders appearing on Question Time instead of backbench MPs whose only influence is their Twitter account. Finally, and most importantly, places defined by economic failure given the chance to change that.

Then, and only then, will England assume its real shape.

Jack Airey is Head of Research at Localis

This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’