Power to the people! How 'localism' could see Hull and East Riding take control of economy
David Torrance on plans to devolve power from Westminster to Humber region ...
FOR decades, the British political consensus had it that "the man in Whitehall knows best".
Whether it was a new bridge across the Humber or housing in the East Riding, everything from conception to delivery was handled by officials based in London.
But since the 1980s, "localism" has increasingly become a political buzz word.
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In essence, it preaches that decisions are best taken locally, rather than centrally by people who often have no direct knowledge of the area in question.
That ethos now dictates vast chunks of the present Government's legislative agenda. Soon, voters in Humberside will elect a new police and crime commissioner, while Hull City Council will pitch for "City Deal" status by the end of this year.
And, if the former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine gets his way, the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership could eventually assume control of funding and powers currently resting in Westminster.
Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy shares Lord Heseltine's vision of returning to the Edwardian era, when figures such as Sir Alfred Gelder were able to transform cities like Hull without asking permission from London.
He says: "I'm a localist. I'm all about devolving powers down to a local level although, obviously, some things have to be done nationally.
"Infrastructure spending could be devolved, for example, while transport could be handled regionally. I'd also like to see a lot more planning policy decided locally, so if an area wants to grow it can."
Mr Percy's localism has a Conservative hue, for he wants to see regions "in competition" with one another. He rejects, however, the Heseltine vision of powerful "conurbation" mayors. "That," he says, "would just be the old and much-hated Humberside County Council by another name."
But for genuine localism to work it needs more cash and that, according to Hull East MP Karl Turner, has not appeared.
He says: "There's a definite agenda to push some powers down to a local level, but the issue is about money – that's a real concern.
"Without additional cash then it just becomes about passing the buck. In truth, it amounts to less money and more responsibility for local authorities like Hull."
And while Mr Turner broadly welcomed Lord Heseltine's report on stimulating regional growth, he does not expect the Government to implement its 89 recommendations. "They'll ignore it," he says, "kick it into the long grass."
Indeed, the localism agenda – whether delivered by Conservatives or previous Labour governments – has a mixed record. Earlier this year, most English cities rejected the option of directly-elected mayors, a heavy blow to the Prime Minister's agenda, although an aspect he may yet revive.
And in 2004, when the former Hull MP John Prescott tried to devolve power to a North East Assembly, voters said "no" by a proportion of almost four to one. It postponed similar referendums in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, which were later dropped.
Little has changed eight years later. As Mr Turner says, the "appetite" for regional devolution simply does not exist.
Yet in London, Wales and Scotland, where there was demand for "localism", Tony Blair's first government was able to devolve power – power that has been extended ever since.
Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg envisages the "City Deal" scheme being extended across England.
Many politicians, particularly in the north of England, look to Scotland, Wales and London and wonder why they should not enjoy similar freedom. Alan Johnson, for example, talks of "repatriating" powers and money currently "sitting at the centre" back to Hull.
Siemens' planned investment at Green Port Hull is frequently raised as an example of central Government hindering local plans. Mixed messages from the coalition are widely perceived to have at least slowed down a final decision on investment in a turbine factory.
If Hull City Council and the Humber LEP had been in control of their own budgets, planning and regional policy, the argument runs, then a deal could have been signed months ago – regardless of what Ministers in London did, or rather did not, say.
In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond is largely free to do precisely that when it comes to attracting investment from renewable energy firms. But just as the UK has an uneven constitutional structure, so too does the localism agenda in England.
How do all the different schemes fit together? In short, they do not. Lord Heseltine's plans for beefed-up LEPs do not sit easily with City Deal status, while directly-elected city mayors would inevitably clash with directly-elected police and crime commissioners.
It is all very British, a belief that everything will sort itself out in the end. There is, at least, a consensus across party lines that localism is the future of politics. After all, as the American politician Thomas "Tip" O'Neill once put it, "all politics is local".