From a garden shed in Yorkshire, a new political party is aiming to change the face of the entire region. Grant Woodward meets Yorkshire First.
IN his back garden on a quietish lane in West Yorkshire, Richard Carter is building himself a new shed. A shallow, half dug hole marks the spot, the spirit level and spade protruding from the dark brown earth an indication that this is only a temporary halt in proceedings.
He points out the freshly completed decking sitting next to it. “I thought that would take me four or five days,” he says. “I managed it in one.” This is a man who likes to get on with things. “I don’t enjoy being on the subs’ bench just warming up,” he agrees. “I love having a project and delivering.”
His latest DIY project was necessitated by an altogether more ambitious one. For the best part of the last 18 months his existing shed has served as the nerve centre of a brand new political party.
Well, nerve centre may be pushing it, but it’s where he comes up with the ideas and ideologies for what he and co-founders Stewart Arnold and Richard Honnorarty decided to call Yorkshire First. The way he describes it though, it sounds less like a political party and more like a guerilla movement.
For a start there are no members, just those who have signed The Yorkshire Pledge – a clarion call adapated from the Yorkshire Ridings Society’s declaration read out every Yorkshire Day on August 1. It ends by demanding that the region is given “the decision-making powers to shape its own future”.
Carter, a ruddy-faced, flat cap-wearing Yorkshireman, makes for an engaging, if unlikely, saviour of the White Rose County. Does he worry that some may consider him a bit of a crackpot?
“If I’m a crackpot then there are thousands more like me out there who all want the same thing,” he says. “The UK isn’t working in the best interests of regions like ours and it’s time that changed. Yorkshire has got a population similar to that of Scotland and an economy twice that of Wales and the powers of neither. To us that’s not good enough.”
He turns and jabs a finger over his garden fence. “Down the road is a quarry that has provided slabs for every street on the Monopoly board. The streets of London aren’t paved with gold, they’re paved with Yorkshire stone. But if we need new train carriages we get theirs when they’ve run out.
“London is like a Death Star, it sucks the energy, vitality and money out of the regions. The only way to address that is to start investing here. But it won’t happen unless we have a voice.”
Yorkshire First was officially born on April 1 last year – “making us April Fools”, Carter notes cheerily. The motivation on his part came from spending time overseas in his day job as a business development adviser (not that he likes to call it that, “because it sounds like bullsh*t, doesn’t it?”).
His travels in Europe and Scandinavia made him appreciate the untapped power and potential within his home county because everyone from Frankfurt to Oslo knew it – and it made the 49-year-old from Huddersfield determined to develop that too.
However, Yorkshire First’s raison d’etre wasn’t simply the perceived need for a new model for Yorkshire, but one for politics as a whole.
To that end it abides by the Bell Principles, the first code of conduct for elected representatives set down by journalist turned anti-sleaze MP Martin Bell, demanding that politicians behave to the highest of standards and put their constituents before their party.
It has a steering group, headed by party leader Carter and his deputy, Stewart Arnold, a former chairman of the Campaign for Yorkshire which pushed for a regional parliament, but it shuns the traditional hierarchies of mainstream parties.
Carter insists none of its key figures are ambitious for themselves, nor do they wish to dictate policies across the whole of Yorkshire. Instead the party is seeking to put pressure on the region’s elected representatives to allow the people to have a “conversation” about how the county should be run.
The end game is the establishment of a Yorkshire Parliament tasked with identifying the challenges and opportunities for the region, creating a vision for Yorkshire for the year 2050, which would then be put before the people to vote on.
But didn’t Yorkshire’s cities vote overwhelmingly against directly elected mayors a couple of years ago, while there was a distinct lack of interest in the regional assembly plan put forward by John Prescott back in 2004? Carter points out that the public’s appetite for some form of devolution has grown immeasurably since then, not least given the new wave of powers invested in Scotland, as well as Wales and across the Pennines in Manchester.
“Manchester is fifth-rate devolution at best though,” he says. “It might be right for Manchester but Yorkshire needs to think bigger than that.
“We should take George Osborne at his word. He says he’ll acccept nothing less than an elected mayor and we should say, we agree, we want more than that.
“We want similar powers to Scotland, adapted to suit our needs but we also need to look at our local authorities, which at the moment are not fit for purpose.”
He cites Switzerland as an example of the structure he believes should operate over here. There, 40 per cent of locally generated taxes are retained by town and parish councils. Another 50 per cent funds local services such as schools and transport.
It’s a federal model which Carter is confident would allow Yorkshire to flourish and finally break the London-based stranglehold. And it’s a vision that has garnered not insubstantial support.
Yorkshire First garnered 1.5 per cent of the vote at last year’s European elections, which he points out is a greater share than the Greens or the SNP managed in their first election. It did it with just seven weeks of campaigning and an outlay of £506.
The result in the General Election was less impressive, but Carter’s enthusiasm is undimmed.
“It’s gone beyond my expectations in terms of how far the debate has moved on,” he says. “Eighteen months ago people weren’t even talking anbut devolution. Now people like (Leeds North West MP) Greg Mulholland and (Hull City Council leader) Steve Brady are saying some brilliant things about the powers Yorkshire should have.”
As for Yorkshire First, he is adamant that it will continue to make the case for a stronger, more unified voice for Yorkshire that cannot be ignored in the corridors of power.
The party now boasts five town councillors and while it accepts that it will never outgun the established parties, it is intent on giving them what Carter calls “a kick in the ballots”.
This August 1 – Yorkshire Day – it will finally allow supporters to become signed-up its members in order to help fund its efforts.
“I’m ambitious,” he says. “I’ve only ever been involved in delivering successful projects so I know we will do it. The ball is rolling and we need to keep it that way.”
For now, however, it’s back to building that shed.