Emeritus Professor Frank Coffield says the national government’s handling of the pandemic shows why the abandoned North-East needs to take control of its own affairs with an assembly between Tweed and Tees

ENOUGH is enough. Central control from London has long been absurd but now it’s life threatening. In a pandemic, local leaders need the powers to act quickly, but it took Health Secretary Matt Hancock three whole days to impose on most of the North-East the restrictions that those leaders had been pleading for.

That delay allowed the virus to spread further.

The problem, however, is that power in England has become increasingly centralized and local leaders are routinely side-lined.

But one lesson from the health crisis that we should have learned is that local public health officials and local politicians (and not government ministers or large corporations like Serco) should be in charge of these decisions. The English regions, however, have been starved of essential information about the location and extent of infections.

The Prime Minister lurches from debacle to debacle, but continues to hold forth as if he was on a triumphal ‘world-beating’ tour. The government’s chaotic handling of the crisis, with 12 U-turns over the summer, deserves to be greeted with the football fans’ derisive chant: “You don’t know what you’re doing”.

We need a new vision for the future of the North-East. The region can no longer tolerate the culpable neglect it’s endured for decades from Whitehall. For the last 40 years, governments of all political persuasions have hoarded power in London. Boris Johnson’s government is the most centralist since the war, making one power grab after another. The greatest divide in the UK is not between the devolved nations but between the global city of London and the rest of the country.

The result has been that regions like the North-East have not just been neglected but abandoned by all the main political parties. We were promised that the market would sort out the problems caused by the closure of the shipyards, steel mills and coal mines, but instead we have suffered generation after generation from higher than average unemployment, poverty, inequality and under-investment. I saw at first hand the damage extended periods of unemployment did to our young people in the 1980s and the same fate is about to befall another generation of young North-Easterners.

The government’s response is its flagship policy of ‘levelling up’, which is as well-resourced an initiative as the Democratic Republic of North Korea is democratic. Instead of half-hearted attempts to level up, I propose a Solidarity Tax to close the yawning gap between the prosperity of London and the poverty in the English regions. Germans willingly pay an extra 5.5 per cent on top of income tax to help rebuild the former East Germany because their history tells them that rising inequalities undermine social cohesion.

We need to take the future of the North-East into our own hands. Instead of plans being developed in Westminster for or even with the North-East, they should be developed by the North-East working in harmony with London.

The case for devolution is now urgent, compelling and irresistible. The condescension shown for years by government ministers to local government must end. Such contempt would not have been acceptable even if it had been deserved, but look how incompetent ministers have shown themselves to be in dealing with the virus. They delayed imposing a lockdown, they failed to protect care homes and they created a shambles over exams.

Devolution would bring decisions as close as possible to the people affected by them. It would provide big jobs with extensive powers and resources which would encourage capable, energetic and ambitious people to come forward to fill them. The division of powers, the need for compromise and for mutual respect between central and regional government would prevent governments swinging from either the extreme left or the extreme right.

Devolution becomes a force for stability and would encourage this region to promote its distinctive features and we have so much to offer. Reducing the drain of talented people moving to London would release creativity internally as well as external collaboration with neighbouring regions on large projects. Once again, the North-East could become a powerhouse of scientific, industrial, social, cultural and political innovation.

What political innovation? Let’s abolish the undemocratic House of Lords (all 830 of them) and replace it with a Senate of the Devolved Nations and Regions. Let’s move to a federal system like the highly successful German model which we helped to establish after 1945. A Regional Assembly from the Tweed to the Tees, consisting of the three existing Combined Authorities (that’s the North of Tyne, the North-East and the Tees Valley) would have powers that go beyond economic development and transport to cover education and training, climate breakdown, the environment, the arts, heritage and culture, and the NHS, integrated with Social Care. The combined authorities, mayors and the two Local Enterprise Partnerships would all be made democratically accountable to the Regional Assembly. The current Conservative plan of having 30 to 40 directly elected mayors in England would create muddle and friction, allowing central government to divide and rule – again.

We need a Constitutional Convention to discuss these proposals and to produce a consensus. We ourselves could organise Citizens Assemblies, run publicity campaigns on the benefits of federalism and involve as equals our young people and local citizens in discussions of their future.

Finally, we must not act like powerless bystanders as an economic and social catastrophe hits this region. We need a rallying, if not a war cry. Let it be: "Take Back Control from Whitehall”. Surely Dominic Cummings, a Durham lad, could not object to taking back control?

  • This article is based on Prof Coffield's booklet entitled "Devolution for the North-East: The case for, against and the form it should take.” If anyone would like a copy of the full report, please email him at f.coffield@ucl.ac.uk.
  • Frank Coffield is Emeritus Professor of Education at University College London (UCL), and was previously Professor of Education at Durham and Newcastle universities. Now retired, he has lived in the North-East for more than 40 years, and has written extensively about education. His new booklet is his first venture into politics, and he has dedicated it to his three grandchildren “in the hope they grow up in a more prosperous, self-governing and equitable North-East”.