Could the north of England do with its own Boris Johnson? In a new report out today, the IPPR think tank argues that a ‘northern voice’ is needed to lobby the government on the region’s priorities. The Mayor of London has shown himself proficient at making the case for London’s transport and budgeting needs. Although the IPPR may be right, that there’s plenty of work needed to rebalance the economy, better national representation for the North isn’t a new problem. In fact, the North has previously said no to several possible solutions.

A decade ago, John Prescott’s plan for regional assemblies was overwhelmingly rejected by a northern referendum. Instead of an opportunity to devolve power and unite smaller areas together, the plan was disregarded as another level of gravy train bureaucracy. Just look at the BBC’s compilation of comments on regional assemblies to see why 78 per cent said no.

Then the coalition put forward proposals for elected mayors. Instead of adding a new layer of politicians, the plan was designed to make local governments work better. Although a few areas said yes, the policy was never really sold to the country and remains one of the governments’ most notable failures.

As I’ve previously discussed, the North East did once have its own Boris in the form of T. Dan Smith. The corrupt Labour leader of Newcastle City Council had a determined vision to rebuild the region and used every power (including illegal ones) at his disposal to rejuvenate the city. He did not completed his task before being caught up in the John Poulson corruption scandal and spent six years behind bars. The North has not had such a strong voice on a national level since.

Smith’s legacy has undergone some rehabilitation since his fall from power. Buried in The Spectator’s archive, there is interesting article from August 1988 on the regeneration of Newcastle. Dominic Lawson traveled to the north to investigate Margaret Thatcher’s inner cities policy and spoke to Smith on how Newcastle had evolved since his heyday. Not much was Smith’s response, and he didn’t hold out much hope for someone to carry on his work. Lawson argued that Smith’s greatest asset was his mouth:

‘It is difficult to avoid the impression that what today’s Tynesiders — of all political persuasions —“find attractive about T. Dan Smith is that he at least made Newcastle an international talking point and temporarily, deserving of the title ‘regional capital”.’

In the quarter of a century since that article, Newcastle has been reshaped to the naked eye but it still struggles to keep up with the rest of the country, as  the ONS’ regional gross value added figures demonstrate. Attempts are still made by local government figures to seize national attention but these can often come across as self-serving.

Boris has limited powers as Mayor of London but, like his predecessor, has managed to effectively tread the line between garnering publicity and actually doing something. In the process, he’s become one of the most effective cheerleaders London has ever had. Imagine if other cities had similar opportunities.

Tags: IPPR, John Prescott, Newcastle, North East of England, T. Dan Smith, UK politics