Bernard Ginns: Parallel deals could solve Yorkshire’s devolution impasse

Wakefield town hall

Wakefield town hall

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THE CHAIRMAN of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority might be “relaxed” that other areas are moving ahead with devolution plans, but business leaders are worried that the Northern Powerhouse concept might be running out of steam.

One senior and influential corporate figure, who did not want to be named because he has no wish to be drawn into a political debate, told me that the ongoing failure to agree a funding deal with London is leaving the area unable to progress with its strategic aims.

While the county is standing still, he said, rival cities like Manchester and Birmingham are making big strides and economic gains.

Indeed, a place that has greater control over its own destiny is far more attractive to investors, which means that West Yorkshire could be losing out on valuable investment.

As well as the opportunity cost, there is also the concern that West Yorkshire’s political leaders might not be ready to assume the responsibilities that come with devolution.

The protracted infighting does not exactly instil confidence that they are capable of making grown-up decisions for the good of the region.

To recap, the Chancellor has struck agreements with groups of councils across the North, including South Yorkshire, to hand over powers and cash from Whitehall.

But West, North and East Yorkshire have failed to reach agreement as councils wrangle over the best way forward and have presented a range of competing proposals to the Government.

Ministers joke wearily that Yorkshire has submitted more bids than the rest of the country combined.

West Yorkshire councils are pushing for a devolution agreement covering themselves and neighbouring Harrogate, Craven, York and Selby, the so-called Leeds City Region.

The main rival proposal, known as Greater Yorkshire, would create a single area wielding devolved powers across the West, North and East.

Finally, it seems that a solution could be emerging to the impasse.

Ministers are looking at whether some sort of umbrella agreement could be thrashed out with three underlying deals for the Leeds City Region, Hull and East Riding and York and North Yorkshire agreed at the same time.

“I think that is the only way through these local battles,” said someone close to the process. “It’s the most practical and inclusive way.”

The umbrella deal could have powers over tourism and aspects of travel. Each of the parallel deals would have whatever they negotiate, including elements of what other devolution deals agreed and perhaps more.

The Yorkshire Post has called for a Greater Yorkshire deal: such an entity would be bigger, stronger and less susceptible to divide and rule in a national debate dominated by London, Scotland and Manchester.

In pragmatic terms, the umbrella agreement with three parallel deals has merit and could offer a neat compromise, providing scale and local accountability, so long as it is kept simple.

Sorting a deal for Leeds - the only major northern city without a devolution agreement - would give some semblance of coherence across the North and a political win for the Chancellor George Osborne.

The Northern Powerhouse project could enter the next phase of development with the cities of the North developing competitive advantage in areas like science, research and innovation.

The vice chancellor of York University Koen Lamberts told me earlier this month that the North can become internationally renowned in the fields of cutting edge media, the bioeconomy and quantum technology.

There are many great opportunities for Yorkshire - let’s get moving and finalise these agreements while we can.

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