South of the River – devolution


Compass-SouthComment logo 2I’ve been thinking about the Scottish Referendum and what it means for South Leeds.

Poor old Scotland, their debate was ignored for two years by the London media. Then there was a panic in the last few weeks and as soon as the result was announced everyone says ‘What does this mean for England?’ The first thing that needs to happen is that the promises made to Scotland are delivered.

There is no doubt that we need devolution in England too. Too much money, power and influence is concentrated in London. Take public transport. Billions are being spent, quite rightly in my opinion, on the Crossrail project. But there was little debate about it compared to the hoo-ha about HS2.

If you go to London you may notice that there are no First or Arriva buses, unlike everywhere else in the country. They still have red London buses because when the Tories privatised the buses in the 1980s they kept London out of it. We have little control over routes and times of services, in London it’s still under democratic control.

So how do we rebalance England? Independence for Yorkshire is very tempting, but probably not realistic. Regional Assemblies were tested ten years ago, but dropped after a referendum in the North East rejected having yet more elected politicians. I wondered about a streamlined version across three regions? Yorkshire could combine with the north east and north west for a Parliament of the North – it has a certain ring to it don’t you think?

I know working with Lancastrians goes against the grain, but as my Granddad explained to me many years ago “All the talk between Yorkshire and Lancashire is just banter, it’s southerners we hate.” The fact that I was growing up in Hertfordshire at the time didn’t seem to bother him.

However good a Parliament of the North sounds, I don’t think it’s the answer. In fact I think the answer’s much simpler – we need to return power and funding to local authorities, in our case Leeds City Council.

I say return, because in years past Councils did all sorts of things. Many of the utilities – water, gas, electricity – were set up by local authorities. Just think what a difference having the profits from those services would do for local services.

Of course some of our utilities are owned by local authorities, the trouble is that they are French and German local authorities that have much greater powers than English councils.

Leeds City Council does have some wholly owned companies – the one that manages the Grand Theatre and the City Varieties, for example. I don’t know the full story this operation, but it seems to been set up to save the theatre from closing. We need Councils to be in control of profitable companies, not just bailing out community assets as a bank of last resort.

There’s a fear in the media that councils won’t be ‘business-friendly’. Every councillor I’ve ever met has had jobs as their number one priority. Anyway, there’s a simple way to incentivise councils. They could be given a share of the Business Rates and the Corporation Tax paid by companies on their patch.

Of course all of this ignores the real lesson from Scotland, which judging from the party conferences seems to have been missed by most politicians. If you talk about issues that matter to ordinary people – the bedroom tax, zero hours contracts, health – and give people a mechanism for change, everyone will engage with the debate and you get 90% turnout in elections.

Now I’m not convinced that an independence vote would have delivered social justice in Scotland. The SNP are one of those parties that tailor their policies to the audience they are talking to at the time. I respect Alex Salmond for his political skill, but not for his politics.

We are told Labour can’t win a majority in England, but I don’t believe it. If they get out of the TV studios and go to the estates with a campaigning message, align themselves with other groups who are fighting the same cause we can have another government like 1945 and restore social justice in England (and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Jeremy Morton Aug13And most importantly, of course, in South Leeds.

I’ll be back in next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.