A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
In this week’s blog, Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East looks at devolution and what it could mean for young people and youth work.
The UK General Election is a mere 40 days away, at time of publication, and one thing that is sure to appear as an outcome, regardless of who wins the keys to Downing Street, is a debate about regional devolution and what it can offer young people.
Since the Scottish Referendum voted ‘Och Nae’ in September 2014, there have been whispered discussions and hushed noises from various regions about central government giving up some control to local governments so they can run semi-autonomously. In fact, Lord Prescott, whose 2004 Northern England devolution attempt was unanimously voted down, has been speaking recently about how he predicts plans for regional assemblies will be revived – especially in the North East.
So what could localism or regional devolution look like in the North East? Here are some options.
Option One – “Metro” Mayor elected
Whilst there are Mayors currently running cities such as in Middlesbrough and Doncaster, these new mayors would have powers similar to the Mayor of London. Supporters say that it has been a success in London while detractors say it hands too much power to an individual and many city voters did reject Mayors in 2012. I think the offer for cities to have mayors will be offered out again and could be taken on a voluntary basis but not imposed by central government.
Option Two – Regional Assembly
Since being batted away over ten years ago, there are some who think this should be revived, albeit in a bigger form covering the whole of the North with powers much like Scotland were given last year. A new North East party has been campaigning for a new regional assembly bid and there is some support from a handful of Labour MPs and, of course, Lord Prescott but a lack of mainstream support combined with an emphatic 78% ‘No’ vote only ten years ago means this may not be a goer.
Option Three – Supercouncil
These combined authorities of councils already exist in West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, and the North East and if this model were chosen then powers would pass to groups of councils working together. This would give these supercouncils the ability to borrow money and run public transport. The government is very keen for mayors to be in charge but as outlined above this comes with implications.
Option Four – On-demand Devolution
The wildcard in the options pack. This would allow different local area authorities to decide on a model that they think suits them the best. This could be chaotic, and it would mean different local areas progressing at different speeds, but it would allow councils the opportunity to state what powers they would want and how they would be delivered.
So why couldn’t devolution work in the North East of England? Manchester currently has devolved powers through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and things seem to be going well enough, from the outside looking on in. The GMCA is a strategic body with powers and responsibility for the planning and delivery of public services such as transport, skills, housing, regeneration, waste management, carbon neutrality and planning permissions. In November last year, plans were also announced for there to be a Mayor of Manchester by the end of 2017 who would have similar powers to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.
With all of these options there appear to be positives and negatives. There does not appear to be a clear winner. Perhaps looking at what powers could be devolved would make things clearer?
The GMCA has already proven that planning and delivering transport, skills, housing, and economic development on a local level has been successful and there have been recent talks of other powers being devolved such as varying the minimum wage, policing, justice, energy, and taxation. Devolving powers relating to education, welfare, and health seem slightly more farfetched and foreign policy and defence is unimaginable.
It seems that big issues affecting young people most directly such as changes to physical and mental health support, education, job seekers allowance or carers allowances are out of reach, for the time being. However, devolution could see a change in more tangible short term victories such as changes to public transport to tackle rural isolationism, creating more houses for first time buyers, developing the economy to create more jobs for 18-24 year-olds.
Speaking with a single and clear voice would mean that regions could be more persuasive in their conversations with external decision-makers and stakeholders, but, playing Devil’s advocate, would devolution create another level of bureaucracy that would actually hinder the decision making process with local parties at loggerheads?
With the recent promises to create a great Northern Powerhouse, devolution presents an opportunity for the North East to show it is capable of standing on its own two feet and taking those crucial first steps to self-sustainment. Whether those steps are successful or the whole thing comes tumbling down is yet to be seen. We should bear in mine, however, as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Russell Brand has been calling for political revolution through not voting and changing an “archaic” system and others have been calling for devolution to put the power in the hands of local authorities. Perhaps the answer lies in evolution, a modification to the current system that incorporates elements of the old while introducing new ways for people to engage?
Regional Youth Work Units are in a prime position to bring the voice of young people to the forefront through innovative practice and to encourage other members of the youth sector to engage in the debate with the young people they work with directly and indirectly in their networks. One thing is for sure though: young people need to be involved in the debate. If the Scottish referendum has shown us anything, it is that young people are capable of making informed choices when given the chance and the only way of giving them a chance is to include them in the process and discussions to begin with.