ON June 23 last year, George Osborne addressed a carefully selected group of politicians and dignitaries in the Power Hall at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. The choice of venue was significant. The Chancellor had come to tell city burghers of his intention to create what he dubbed the “Northern Powerhouse”.

It would be “a collection of northern cities sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world”, Osborne said.

Twelve months later, the “Northern Powerhouse” has entered the political vocabulary. There is even a government minister for the neologism, and the promise of more power for councils throughout England.

So does this mean England is set for a wave of devolution?

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill currently making it way through the Commons would allow for the creation of new “combined authorities” with mayors exercising potentially significant executive powers. These arrangements stop far short of the devolved powers of Scotland, but proponents say they are a significant decentralising measure for the major cities of England. Critics argue that the deals are piecemeal and chaotic and have been pushed through without public consultation.

“Behind this is a more fundamental question about the way England is governed and the sense that English devolution is unfinished business,” says Ed Cox, director of the left- leaning think-tank IPPR North, who lives and works in Manchester.

The idea of rebalancing how England is governed is not new. Although John Prescott’s dream of a North East regional assembly was solidly defeated in 2004, a decade on demands for greater decentralisation of public services – and devolution of political power – are growing, especially in post-industrial reaches far beyond the prosperous bubble of London and the south-east.

In February, Osborne announced that people in Manchester would be given “greater control over their own affairs”. From next year Greater Manchester will become the first English region to be handed full control of its £6 billion healthcare budget. An elected mayor will get control over the fire service as well as policing.

Other English regions are expected to take the “DevoManc” lead.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a “historic” deal that would give Cornwall greater control over areas of public spending currently controlled by London.

Although many more councils are expected to follow in Cornwall’s footsteps, there are concerns that government in Westminster is far keener to devolve spending powers than political ones. The agreement reached between Cornwall Council and ministers was driven through before the council had submitted its “Case for Cornwall” – a document, months in the preparation, asking for a much wider range of powers, including greater political devolution.

“You can’t do economic devolution without social and political devolution,” says Ed Cox. “Democratic devolution is the only solution to fundamental problems around democratic participation.”

“If we look north of the Border, the people of Scotland made it clear that they wanted more autonomy and rejected the political status quo of the two parties at Westminster. The evidence suggests there is the same appetite in the north of England.”

Whether that appetite is sated by moves such as the “Northern Powerhouse” remains to be seen. Some fear that the Conservatives’ decentralisation zeal owes less to community empowerment and more to a desire to shift the blame for spending cuts from Westminster to local councils. The Manchester Evening News coined the hashtag #NorthernPowerCut after electrification of the TransPennine rail line was “paused” last month.

Manchester-born former Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill – who coined the BRIC acronym for emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India and China – has been given a key role in driving forward the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda. O’Neill, below, recently admitted that decentralisation would not necessarily lead to productivity gains, and concerns are growing that straightened local authorities could be left carrying the can for swingeing budget cuts.

What is needed, says Cox, is devolution of fiscal powers – but that seems to be off the cards for the time being.“If you talk to people in Manchester there is a sense that this health and social care devolution is too big, they are saying ‘it can’t be done, we can’t do it. The issues are too big’,” says Ed Cox. “There is a profound sense that this isn’t empowering.”

“As long as you don’t have fiscal devolution and our economic imbalances continue to grow, it becomes harder and harder to do redistribution that is any sense meaningful.”

Outside Huddersfield’s striking neo-classical train station stands an imposing bronze statue of the town’s most famous son, Harold Wilson.

Minus his trademark pipe, the former Labour prime minister looks purposeful: one hand holds down his coat, as if caught in mid-stride on his way to an important meeting.

Huddersfield was once similarly business-like. The town boomed during the industrial revolution. Up until the 1980s the textile factories were still busy – even today Huddersfield cloth is highly sought after by the tailors of Savile Row.

Huddersfield retains much of the charm that led Engels to describe it as “the handsomest by far” of the Yorkshire and Lancashire factory towns. Across the square from Wilson’s effigy is the George Hotel, where rugby league was founded in 1895. But the independent shops that once lined the towns streets are mostly gone, replaced by the same narrow range of pound stores and bookies that cleave to just every high street in Britain.

The economic crisis hit towns such as Huddersfield, and the north in general, much harder than the south. Public spending per head is markedly lower in Northern England than in London. Such disparities are fuelling calls for regional devolution, says Stewart Arnold, co-founder of Yorkshire First – a political party with a progressive message akin to that of the SNP, set up in 2014 to campaign for a devolution settlement similar to that of Scotland.

There are 74 separate legislative regions in Europe – but none in England. “It is inevitable that we will have some form of asymmetric devolution in England,” says Arnold when we meet in Huddersfield. “That is what happened in Scotland and that’s the model.”

The problem for Yorkshire First – and other emerging regionalist political parties in England such as the Northern Party – is that while the vast majority of English voters believe the country is too centralised, a political party has yet to emerge to articulate this demand for more local control. In May’s General Election, Yorkshire First stood in 14 seats. It failed to retain a single deposit.

Arnold is phlegmatic about the scale of the challenge facing regionalist parties in England. “We recognise that it took the SNP about 40 years to make a breakthrough. I might be dead before we do , but we are in it for the long haul.”

While a Yorkshire regional assembly remains a rather distant dream, the independence referendum and growing questions about the future of the union are having a profound effect on politics in England.

“The union-wide parties are not responding well to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the party structures are all still focused on Westminster,” says Andrew Mycock, senior lecturer in politics at Huddersfield University.

In this heated climate, decentralisation is “politically pragmatic”, he says. “There is a pressure cooker, and Westminster knows it needs to respond so what happened in Scotland doesn’t happen in England.”

Labour, traditionally the party of the North of England, has found itself flat-footed. Regional devolution seems to be the only question not being asked of the Labour leadership candidates. Osborne exploited tensions between Labour-run councils and central office in London to do drive through the Greater Manchester deal.

The stickiness of the term “Northern Powerhouse” attests to the strength of demands for more local control. But no UK party has set out a clear blueprint for decentralisation. Should the process stop at healthcare and policing? Or should there be devolution of political power?

The problem for advocates of greater devolution lies, in part, in the range of regional identities that fracture Englishness. At the same time, there is no political infrastructure within which putative new governing bodies for English regions could sit – whatever else it is, English Votes for English Laws is not a solution to the emerging “English Question”. A separate English parliament in a federal UK – a move proposed by Labour’s Chuka Umunna last week – is not the same as regional devolution.

The drive for an answer to the English Question could come from an unlikely source – London. The capital is increasingly “the bogeyman of English regional politics”, says Mycock.

With the average household income in the north of England almost £10,000 less a year than the London equivalent, disquiet at the disparities between north and south are growing sharply

Next year’s London mayoral elections could see a growing clamour for the devolution of fiscal powers to the capital. Other regions across England could follow suit. Whether any of that amounts to a genuine devolved “powerhouse” remains to be seen.