There is something distinctive about the North. As a Lancastrian who has lived on the banks of the Tyne all my adult life, I love it all from the Albert Docks to the Hull waterfront and up to the moors of Northumberland and Cumberland. I have always felt in discussions of Englishness vs Britishness a crucial link has been missed out. Not whether you are from the Government Office region for the North East, North West or Yorkshire and the Humber. I am a Northerner. I always feel like I have a lot in common with people from the north than I have with other people. A certain wry sense of humour and a pride in our heritage.
All very good but what is the political interest? After Labours failed regional project and the overwhelming vote in the North East against a regional assembly there is still a gap in Britain for an effective voice below the nation state but above that of local councils. I was up in Scotland recently for the Edinburgh festival and the sense that you are in a region of the country that makes the best of its membership of the UK but does its own thing when there is a better local answer was strong. Despite the current coalitions good intentions to devolve power to the citizen and to local councils, it is all too easily a power that can be taken away by the next centralising government, which is most Westminster governments after a few years!
I think the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) that will replace the Regional Development Agencies will be fine for local business support. However, on areas like how we turn around our great Northern cities, which despite a lot of tarting up of the city centres under Labour lack a strong private sector with enough indigenous companies to mean we can be in control of our destiny, a genuine Northern voice would be useful. A lot of times on issues such as Education and housing the English solution dreamt up in Westminster feels like a solution for London. Until these decisions are taken in the North they will not be right for our distinctive region.
I do not accept the arguments for an English Parliament. There is a need for an English version of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly to help overturn the centralisation of the UK but England is too large and too disparate for an English Parliament to have any use – the problems of the North are too different to those of the South.
Local Councils need more powers and so do individuals but large areas of public policy, Health, Education and Transport for example need a genuinely Northern answer. Ironically, I think the idea might get more buy in from the public than powers for the North East or other parts of the North. On Teeside, there was a large vote against the assembly and we have seen Tees Valley councils wanting an independent voice from the rest of the North East with call for a separate LEP. A wider northern identity might calm fears that the neighbouring town is taking power away and give the area the scale necessary to differentiate it from local areas but to still keep a distinctive voice.