The Government risks “splintering” the country if it fails to deliver further devolution in the English regions where large numbers of people voted for Brexit, a northern metro mayor has warned.
Steve Rotheram, who was elected as mayor of the Liverpool City Region last year, told a conference in Leeds today that transferring power from Westminster “could go a long way in helping to heal the rifts that divide our society.”
The former Labour MP was the keynote speaker at the Brexit North Summit at Leeds Civic Hall, where political and business leaders join academics to discuss the likely impact of Brexit across the North.
Describing the result of the 2016 referendum, Mr Rotheram said there has been a crisis of confidence in the country’s political institutions “for far too long” and that the over-centralised political system and regional economic inequalities had led to many feeling disconnected.
Arguing that Westminster could tackle this issue by transferring more powers to the regions and the devolved nations, he told the audience: “The terms of devolution itself have to go much further than they have gone so far.”
He added: “If we continue as we are, then we will not just face economic uncertainty and disruption, but we will also risk a further splintering in the country, between those that feel like they have a stake in their futures, and those who feel that they continue to be ignored.
“Westminster elites and Whitehall mandarins are every bit as much to blame for people’s sense of alienation as Brussels bureaucrats, but devolution at least offers us a chance to do things differently.
“Devolving powers to our communities across the country represents the best hope of restoring people’s confidence in the political system. It is not a panacea in itself, but it could go a long way in helping to heal the rifts that divide our society.”
Mr Rotheram, the keynote speaker at the event organised by think-tank IPPR North, was one of six new metro mayors elected last year to lead combined authorities in England. Dan Jarvis was this month voted in as mayor of the Sheffield City Region.
Another speaker at the event, Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, who was brought up in Wakefield, said the 2016 Brexit vote had changed the nature of public debate, and meant that economic inequalities across the regions were more likely to be discussed.
But he warned: “Everyone is so obsessed in Westminster and Whitehall with Brexit, that very little governing is getting done at the moment.
“There has always been a case in my book for devolution to the English regions, who have never really got a fair look-in, but one of the most compelling reasons in a post-Brexit scenario is Whitehall and Westminster are simply unable to cope any more.
“Brexit is such a massive challenge to central government that actually you have to devolve some powers now, otherwise things that need doing, transport being amongst them, are not going to get done.
“If you remember the row over Crossrail 2, when the Government announced it wasn’t going to do the electrification of the cross-Pennines railway.
“It was actually the metro mayors that took a lead in the push-back on that, that was very interesting and shows the need for regions like this to have proper political representation.
Among the speakers at the event were Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan and Dr Sarah Longlands, Director of IPPR North.
Mr Riordan said “it cannot be right” that his authority needs to talk to Whitehall before planning a new roundabout or ask a government agency for permission to remove an abandoned car from the ring road.
He said: “If we don’t get devolution in the North of England in a significant way, the moment of people wanting to take a bit more control of their lives and wanting to have more ability to shape their own destiny and decisions being closer to the people they affect will be lost.”