Friends in the Northeast

November 21, 1997

PUBLICATION last week of the "Declaration for the North" was a unique event in modern English regional politics. It called on the government to bring forward plans for the creation of an elected assembly for the Northeast of England at the earliest opportunity.

Its supporters included 11 Northeast Labour MPs, the region's only Liberal Democrat MP and all four MEPs, trade unionists, artists and academics. Publication was not an isolated enterprise but part of a rising tide of regionalism that, ultimately, will affect all aspects of English life, including universities.

The narrow Welsh vote for an assembly provided succour to those inside and outside government who oppose devolution. Those who thought - and prayed - that English regional government would disappear from the political agenda were hopelessly naive and seriously uninformed about the growing interest in devolution in regions such as the Northeast.

For the Northeast - closer to Edinburgh than London - the proximity of a tax-raising, law-making Parliament presents a particular challenge. In the 1970s, the region's MPs fought fiercely against Scottish devolution. By the mid-1980s, however, attitudes had changed markedly. The region had struggled to cope with rapid de-industrialisation and its social fall-out, finding itself politically and culturally at odds with Thatcher's Middle England. Labourist voting traditions were reinforced and Scottish arguments about a democratic deficit began to resonate. Local authorities, trade unions and business sought to co-operate by developing distinctive regional institutions in order to attract new industry to the region.

Universities found themselves increasingly drawn into the developing regional structures. Sketchy plans for regional government were put forward by the regional Labour party. The 1992 election manifesto committed Labour to regional assemblies.

Under new Labour the commitment to regional assemblies has been ambiguous. After John Major attacked Labour's plans for assemblies in 1995, Tony Blair announced a review led by Jack Straw which identified the hidden growth of regional government in England. This includes ten integrated regional offices established by the Conservatives and a large quango state, all dispensing public largesse on an astonishing scale - and largely unknown to the citizens of the English regions. Straw proposed a solution based on regional chambers, made up largely of appointed local councillors; directly elected assemblies created only where demand for them could be demonstrated and only after a referendum had been held and an affirmative vote achieved; and, simultaneously, the creation of regional development agencies to introduce much-needed co-ordination into economic affairs, although answerable to ministers in London.

The Northeast will probably want to press ahead rapidly: the declaration called for a referendum "at the earliest opportunity", opening the way for a wider regionalisation of England. The genie of English regionalism is out of the bottle.

Universities are being forced to respond to the new regionalism. The government will shortly bring forward its regional development agency plans for England. It is likely that a representative of universities in each of the regions will obtain a seat on the boards appointed by ministers. Regions such as the Northeast are likely to bring forward plans for regional chambers, which, although dominated by councillors, will have representation by business, unions, voluntary groups and higher education.

In the short term universities will increasingly operate on a regional stage. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has begun to establish mechanisms by which universities will act in this way. Other questions confront the universities: not least whether they really want the quasi-executive responsibilities involved in membership of of the agencies and chambers.

In the longer run the prospect of directly elected regional assemblies throws up questions which universities have barely begun to address. An important general one is the degree to which assemblies should influence the activities of universities in their region. The Northeast has poor levels of educational achievement and low levels of indigenous technological capacity in the regional economy. A regional assembly is likely to respond by focusing on such questions with a real bearing on the interests of universities.

The demand for devolution is underpinned by a desire to loosen the political, economic and cultural ties which bind the regions to Westminster, Whitehall and the City. The domination of the south and its interests and sensibilities is deeply resented in the north. This surfaced recently in relation to the privileged position of Oxbridge in the university funding system.

The desire for devolution is as much about an intangible quest for a rejuvenated civic life in the provinces as it is about dry matters of structures and processes. Universities will gain from such flowering of provincial life. Whether those who inhabit the golden triangle of the British power structure see things the same way remains an open question.

John Tomaney works in the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at the University of Newcastle and was a signatory of the Declaration for the North.

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