Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

English Devolution – Identity and Viability

On Democratic Audit Ellie Geddes of IPPR argues that the north of England should take the opportunity to make the case for a degree of devolution and range of powers, concluding.

Whatever the outcome of September’s referendum, it is likely that Scotland will get further powers through some form of greater devolution. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom is evolving and the devolution agenda is coming to the forefront. If the north of England is ever to get its voice heard and gain control over its own affairs, ensuring it is not left behind, now is the time for it to speak up and be noticed.

This raises important issues of identity and viability.

In Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) there is a National identity. In the regions of England the identity is either a wider national identity (British/English) or much more parochial (based on County or town). People tend not to identify with the old Government Office Regions – particularly the further you move away from the North or the West of England – with one notable exception:

Map showing the Regions of England and the constituent metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, in 2009.

Map showing the Regions of England and the constituent metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, in 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

  • North West
  • North East
  • Yorkshire and Humber
  • West Midlands
  • East Midlands
  • East of England
  • South West
  • South East
  • London (possibly being a mega-conurbation and a region, having a regional identity and devolution)

Part of the reason is that these are economic units rather than historical units. Also there are no real “regional-nationalities” – the Native Cornish and Yorkshire Tykes possibly excepted. This again is historical – the proportion of people who have deep roots (generations before the Industrial Revolution) in “their English Region” is much smaller than is the case in the Nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Historical internal migrations have tended to be within the nations not within the regions (migration across the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland being the most notable exception). Thus when industrialisation happened people move within their nation (e.g. from Stirlingshire to Glasgow or from Cumberland to the West Riding or from Cornwall to Teesside). Whilst this had little effect on “Scottish Identity”, it tended to dilute regional identity in England.

This is a problem when “urging” devolution on “the North of England” – there is a lack of identity and consequently a lack of common organisation and popular leadership. Where does the identity lie?

At a very broad generalisation I would say that the metropolitan population tends to identify with their urban area, whilst the rural population tend to identify with their county – often the pre 1974 county – and only grudgingly with their nearest urban centres. The position of the rural population is one of the issues with popular acceptance of “city regions”.

Looking at the major urban areas is instructive.

Urban Areas

Most populous Built-up areas in England and Wales as defined by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showing all those with a population in excess of 100,000 at the 2011 census

If these circles represent approximate points of “sub-national” identity (at least for the urban population that is the majority of the country – and even then it may be an assumption too far to suggest that the citizens of Southampton and Portsmouth should share an identity), there is obviously a problem with then trying to impose regions and regional identities. Superimposing the regional map on the urban centres one highlights the problem.

Urban Areas of England and Wales with English Regional Boundaries (Wikimedia Commons) superimposed.

Urban Areas of England and Wales with English Regional Boundaries (Wikimedia Commons) superimposed.

Urban Areas tend to be collectivized into artificial regional groupings. What does Bournemouth/Poole have in common with Gloucester, or Thanet with Oxford, or Southend with Northampton? Bournemouth/Poole (South West England) probably has more affinity with “South Hampshire” (Southampton-Portsmouth – in South East England). Likewise Chesterfield (East Midlands) might have more affinity with Sheffield (Yorkshire and the Humber) than with other East Midlands conurbations.

Looking at “the North” (of England) highlights a further set of problems.

 most populous Built-up areas in England and Wales as defined by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showing all those with a population in excess of 100,000 at the 2011 census with English Regions (Wikimedia Commons) superimposed

Most populous Built-up areas in Northern England as defined by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showing all those with a population in excess of 100,000 at the 2011 census with English Regions (Wikimedia Commons) superimposed

The majority of the populations of the “Northern Regions” are packed into a part of their region with large sparsely populated rural areas some very considerable distances from the urban “centres”.

Within each region there are competing centres – often with a history of rivalry that can tip into antipathy that is not always false and not always restricted to which football (rugby league or football league) team you support.

  • Birkenhead vs Liverpool, Liverpool vs Manchester, East Lancashire Mill Towns vs Manchester (and each other?)
  • Sheffield vs West Yorkshire, even Bradford vs Leeds (within the same ONS conurbation), Hull vs everyone else
  • Teesside vs Sunderland, everyone vs Tyneside (and Gateshead vs Newcastle within the Tyneside Conurbation)

One of the drives for devolution is a general frustration with the way that Westminster seems to have become the be all and end all of the UK with peripheral areas treated with a disdain that is almost colonial. One of the fears of devolution is that you create “mini-westminsters” with exactly the same problems.

Arguably this should not be so much of a problem because each region is more “balanced” than the UK as a whole. London is very dominant:

Built-up area Population
(2011 Census)
Pop as % of London
Greater London Built-up area
(London Boroughs, Hemel Hempstead, Watford, Woking, Harlow, St Albans)
Greater Manchester Built-up area
(Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury, Trafford, Tameside)
2,553,379 26%
West Midlands Built-up area
(Birmingham, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Dudley, Walsall, Solihull)
2,440,986 25%
West Yorkshire Built-up area
(Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Keighley, Halifax)
1,777,934 18%

(Greater Glasgow comes in at  1,168,270)

This compares to:

Built-up area Population
(2011 Census)
Pop as % of Manchester
Greater Manchester Built-up area
(Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury, Trafford, Tameside)
Liverpool Built-up area
(Liverpool, Bootle, Litherland, Crosby, Prescot, St. Helens, Ashton-in-Makerfield)
864,122 34%
Birkenhead Built-up area
(Birkenhead, Wallasey, Ellesmere Port, Bebington)
325,264 13%
Preston Built-up area
(Preston, Bamber Bridge, Chorley, Fulwood, Leyland)
313,322 12%


Built-up area Population
(2011 Census)
Pop as % of West Yorkshire
West Yorkshire Built-up area
(Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Keighley, Halifax)
Sheffield Built-up area
(Sheffield, Rotherham, Rawmarsh)
685,368 39%
Kingston upon Hull Built-up area
(Kingston upon Hull, Cottingham, Hessle)
314,018 18%
Barnsley/Dearne Valley Built-up area
(Barnsley, Wath upon Dearne, Wombwell, Hoyland)
223,281 13%


Built-up area Population
(2011 Census)
Pop as % of Tyneside
Tyneside Built-up area
(Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, South Shields, Tynemouth, Wallsend, Whitley Bay, Jarrow)
Teesside Built-up area
(Middlesbrough, Stockton-On-Tees, Billingham, Redcar)
376,633 48%
Sunderland Built-up area
(Sunderland, Washington, Chester-Le-Street, Hetton-le-Hole, Houghton-le-Spring)
335,415 43%

The comparison is not perfect, but in each of the three Northern Regions the “challenger” conurbation is comparatively larger than the English challenger to London.

If setting up devolved administrations, it is not of course necessary to situate them in the largest conurbation. Edinburgh is after all considerably smaller than Glasgow:

Urban Area Population
(2001 Census)
Greater Glasgow 1,168,270
Edinburgh 452,194
Aberdeen 197,328
Dundee 154,674

Scotland does not seem to have suffered from not having its administration in its largest conurbation, and it does not seem to have major issues with Greater Glasgow being about as large as the next eight urban areas combined. It might have suffered if Glasgow was the seat of the Scottish Parliament and Executive.

Might putting regional assemblies in say Durham, York and Lancaster avoid the problems of “dominant westminsters”? Probably, but you still have the issue of identity and common purpose.

“The North” tends to be defined in the negative, either geographically – “north of Watford” – or in terms of problems – “Unemployment remains high in the North”. In terms of the devolution debate the primary claim is probably similar to Scotland’s secondary claim – “it’s not London/Westminster”.

At this stage it is probably worth bringing in the concept of viability.

What makes a region viable – in terms of being able to run an effective devolved administration where the concept (if not the particular political colour) of such an administration enjoys the support of the majority of the population? I think it has to be a combination of size and shared purpose.

Regional Populations in mid 2012 were:

Region Population
Wales 3,074.1
Scotland 5,313.6
Northern Ireland 1,823.6
North East 2,602.3
North West 7,084.3
Yorkshire and The Humber 5,316.7
East Midlands 4,567.7
West Midlands 5,642.6
East 5,907.3
London * 8,308.4
South East 8,724.7
South West 5,339.6

ONS: Region and Country Profiles – December 2013 table 1: Key statistics – population

(* NUTS region rather than built-up area – hence different population)

There is little question that Scotland (5.3M), Wales (3M)  and London (8.3M) are viable regions. Stripping away the unusual circumstances of Northern Ireland (1.8M), it would also seem capable of operating with devolved powers.

So in terms of viability, population size would not seem to be a problem, but lack of identity and common purpose may cause any devolved regional assembly to be more an organisational bureaucracy than an agent for change. Suspicion of the likely ability of the proposed North East Assembly to actually make a change – rather than be just a “super-council” may have been a major reason for the decisive rejection of the proposal at the referendum in 2004.

Any devolved assembly has to be able act on behalf of its region – it cannot afford to spend its time managing internal divisions. The shared vision has to be greater than the internal divisions. Although it was not a regional assembly, the Regional Development Agency in the North East, One North East (ONE). suffered from these divisions. Not only was there huge suspicion of “another Newcastle organisation” – particularly in Teesside (“Only Newcastle Exists“), but the agency’s board  also seemed to be set up to try to represent every major interest (business, unions, voluntary sector, health, local authorities, urban/rural, universities, colleges etc.) rather than provide unified leadership.

So, unless we believe that the Westminster system can be magically (and swiftly) reformed to serve the whole country, can we define a devolved structure whereby groups will be willing to sink their differences? It may be a case of finding “a bigger cause” to overcome the resistance to change. Might going beyond the desire for a region to administer itself more independently to include an objective of changing the structure of the country from a mono-centre state to a multi-centre state be that cause? Multi-centre states include: Germany, Switzerland, Australia, The United States, Canada.

Giving devolution to the North East will not cause a restructuring of the UK; it might improve the position of the region a bit. To do something bigger we need to ask why do we consider devolution in terms of the existing regions? The English regions are an artificial construct with the possible exception of Yorkshire (less possibly South Humberside) and should therefore not be considered sacrosanct.

Elsewhere I have discussed the possibility of a multi-city region along the M62 corridor possibly facilitated by an “HS62” High Speed service along the lines of the Javelin commuter trains operating on HS1. The population of the conurbations either directly served by the Leeds-Liverpool transport corridor or within commuting distance could rival that of London and possibly provide a second centre of gravity.

Such a region does not match the current definitions of English Regions. It consists of the Metropolitan Counties of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside plus parts of South Yorkshire and Lancashire. Would pressure to include the rest of Yorkshire and Lancashire be justified to preserve the integrity of the counties (with which many identify)? Arguably much of these counties look to the conurbations in the M62 corridor. However parts of North Yorkshire look northwards to Darlington / Stockton / Middlesbrough / Redcar. Border considerations are usually an unsatisfactory compromise.

If an M62/HS62 region was to be created, it then leaves the question as to “what happens elsewhere?” There is a tidiness of having a common structure across the whole country and it avoids variants on the “West Lothian Question“. Yet any common structure will still be “unequal” in terms of the impact and capabilities of any “regional structure”. Three regions might be considered mega regions: London, M62/HS62 corridor as just discussed, and possibly a multi-city region covering Nottingham to Birmingham. These would be powerful regions meeting the challenge of changing the country into a multi-centre country. Once these have been set up any other regions would be comparative minnows. The need to respect lack of regional identity may even mean that “the minnows” may be even smaller.

So, for example, considering the position of the North East (of England) under this scenario:

  • There would be a predominantly rural “gap” between the northern edge of the M62/HS62 multi-city region and the border with Scotland.
  • This “region” would include: The North East, Cumbria and possibly North Lancashire and parts of North Yorkshire.
  • Apart from being approximately the same as the North East and Cumbria BBC region, any regional identity is a negative – possibly based on being “borderers”. But that identity will be less in the south of the area – unless the creation of the M62/HS62 region causes a similar feeling of “outsideness”.
  • It is therefore probable that this area would not have a potential equivalent to either the nation to the North (Scotland) or the region to the South (M62 multi-city region). It will therefore probably fail the test of finding “a bigger cause” to overcome the resistance to change, and any “North East and Cumbria” administrative region would lack both public support and political cohesion.
  • Options are therefore limited. Either:
    • the status quo – direct rule from Westminster with the existing County Councils (subject to any division of Lancashire and North Yorkshire)
    • Devolution to City Regions with a city administering a hinterland. Part of this hinterland would also be within the travel-to-work area of the city and may thus feel an affinity with “their city”, but other parts would feel less affiliated. City Regions might be:
      • Newcastle & Northumbria/North Durham,
      • Teesside & South Durham plus possibly parts of North Yorkshire,
      • Carlisle & Cumbria (or possibly just Cumberland),
      • Possibly Lancaster & North Lancashire plus possibly old Lancashire and Westmorland carved out of Cumbria
    • The two North Eastern city regions would probably command public support in their key “cities” (at least Teesside will not come “under” Newcastle), but may only get grudging support elsewhere. Sunderland might make a claim to be a city region in its own right with an East Durham hinterland.
    • In the North West there may well be an argument that City Regions based on Carlisle and Lancashire are little different from Unitary Councils.
  • Neither option is “obvious”. The Status Quo option means that there would not be a uniform structure across the country, whilst the City Region option gives a structure that is only uniform in name; City Regions would be economic minnows compared to the M62/HS62 mega-city region.
  • (There is another option which is to “give” the M62/HS62 region a hinterland that stretches North all the way to the Scottish Border. However lumbering the multi-city region with such a hinterland will cause it to lose focus on generating significant economic power, and will leave the northern hinterland feeling that they are an unwanted afterthought and a drag on the rest of the region. And as a solution it would not work elsewhere in the country – what do you “do” with the South West; City Regions or Counties look like a more sensible solution than attaching them to the suggested Midlands mega-region.)

Whatever happens there will be populations that feel like second-class citizens. But that is what we have at the moment. Should we view devolution not as a means to empower all regions, but as a way to change the structure of the country to a “multi-centred” one less dominated by London. If that could happen would we not all benefit?

We accepted that Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland could be given the means to attempt to develop themselves – at the cost of the English regions being left out. Do we now accept that the next stage of devolution only empowers parts of the English periphery – new multi-city regions? This then leaves the rest to try to ride on the coat-tails of London and new multi-city regions – with their own economic development funded by transfer payments from these new mega-regions?


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6 thoughts on “English Devolution – Identity and Viability

  1. Peter on said:

    I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but people in Lancashire towns identify a) with their town and b) with their county. Therefore a person in Wigan will see themselves as a Wiganer and then a Lancastrian. Other than the under 25s, who don’t appear to identify with anyone, people tend not to recognise post 1974 made up counties. Even within boroughs such as Wigan Borough, the towns within, namely Wigan & Leigh and to a lesser extent Atherton and Ashton, do not really identify with each other.

    In other words there is no chance of regional identity.

    The only option for England is for government to stop being so London-centric and consider all parts of England equally, and that will keep more of the population of England happy. The north of the country has had too many of it’s assets and industries stripped bare by the south to have any chance of economic viability anyway.

  2. The only option for England is for government to stop being so London-centric


    and consider all parts of England equally

    But how given that they are already unequal – and very different?

    I am no longer of the opinion that “equal devolution” to approximately equal regions (as currently defined) will give effective results.

    Do we redefine “the parts of England”? In doing so it might be beneficial to redefine in terms of parts that are urban/industrial and parts that are rural/agricultural. That is not “equal”, but may allow “horses for courses” – which may be more effective.

  3. Peter on said:

    It would be relatively simple to make the country ‘more equal’, not necessarily completely equal, by stopping all investment in the SE and spending it in the rest of the country, other than the major cities that are generally doing OK.

    Stop all incentives for running a business in the SE and make it more desirable to have a business elsewhere.

    Move all public sector departments and facilities out of London, leaving only those necessary to serve the local population.

    Cancel HS2 which has no purpose anyway, and use the money to improve the inter-city rail network elsewhere.

    Stop even discussing LHR expansion, and encourage more flights from Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, where there is adequate capacity, and large local populations.

    The money saved in cancelling HS2 and LHR expansion alone would be massive in itself, but reducing the pointless movement of people in a general southern direction would generate more savings.

    Then all the empty houses in deprived areas could be used to house people who will work in the newly regenerated areas, and a good proportion of the housing shortage is solved.

    The main West and East coast rail lines won’t be at bursting capacity as there will be far less need to use them.

    The benefits are endless. If only politicians could see the blindingly obvious.

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