Notebook

November 7, 2011 10:52 pm

A bolder approach to city regions

What is to be done about England? Northern regions are again going through a bout of fretting about the superior financial and political firepower of Scotland, which has won a string of recent investments.

Meanwhile, Lord Heseltine, the Tory grandee, and Sir Terry Leahy, former Tesco chief executive, are calling for England’s city regions to have as much devolution as London to help them compete with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and close the north-south divide.

In a report on the future of Liverpool for David Cameron, they propose a London-style directly elected mayor, representing 1.5m people in Merseyside’s six boroughs rather than just the city’s 400,000 – a model that could apply elsewhere.

Since devolution came to the capital and the UK’s other nations in the late 1990s, the English question has gone unanswered. The plan by Labour’s John Prescott for elected regional assemblies sank in a disastrous referendum in the north-east in 2004.

The coalition promises elected mayors for the 12 biggest municipalities, subject to referendums, but these would be limited in geographical scope and power. It is replacing Labour’s nine regional development agencies with 38 local enterprise partnerships, which lack powers and resources.

There are strong reasons to boost city regions, which can spread prosperity through what economists call agglomeration effects. But many councils are suspicious of “metro mayors” and there are questions about whether a London-style authority and assembly would need to be imposed on boroughs.

Banx cartoon

Governments often promise to decentralise but act differently. The coalition’s localism reforms will give councils some extra autonomy and financial freedom, but their authority over planning will be restricted by a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. Responsibility for inward investment and skills training has been centralised, ministers decide who gets regional grants and enterprise zones, and the creation of free schools and academies is shrinking councils’ role.

Two things are needed for genuine devolution: local acceptance of a structure that will work and willingness by the centre to concede authority. For 50 years, power has been shifting to Whitehall. Lord Heseltine and Sir Terry say the rebalancing of government in England is “inevitable”. If only that were true.

True to itself

Three years ago Blackpool was going to be the new Las Vegas until hopes of a supercasino were killed off. Now some say it will be the new Texas, with gas wells creating an economic boom – though opposition is mounting.

An area between Southport, Blackpool and Preston has the UK’s most promising shale gas reserves, but the “fracking” needed to release them, blasting water and chemicals to crack underground rocks, is provoking deep hostility.

Caudrilla, the company licensed to explore it, has admitted that two minor earthquakes in Blackpool were caused by gas extraction. Protests are being led by eco-warriors and some of the area’s many retired people, who worry about damage to their homes and pollution of water supplies. These pensioners, not least the women, can be formidable. The north west has a reputation for breeding females in the mould of Coronation Street’s fictional Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner, or comedian Les Dawson’s mother-in-law. Cross them at your peril.

Blackpool has had its problems but it has a unique character, with no need to be modelled on anywhere but itself. From the mid-1980s to the 1990s visitors fell from 17m a year to 10m, mainly because of competition from foreign holidays, yet last year the total rose 1m to 13m. The 117-year-old Tower has opened after a £5m revamp, with a glass observational platform from which on a good day you can see Manchester, the Lakes and Scotland.

The town is not immune to austerity: the quality of its famous illuminations has been criticised after budget cuts. But Blackpool seems to be turning the corner. A resort that hrived in the industrial age can survive in the digital one too.

What a carry-on

Events at St Paul’s have been likened to Carry On At The Cathedral. Would they not also make a turbocharged episode of the former BBC sitcom All Gas and Gaiters?

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