Austin Mitchell: Welcome steps on road to devolution for Yorkshire

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I’VE always been an advocate of devolution and regional government for Yorkshire, so any decentralisation is a welcome start.

Even those Yorkshire folk who still feel the old antipathy to Lancashire would be wrong to begrudge the Government’s proposal to begin the building of the Northern Powerhouse on the wrong side of the Pennines with a huge Manchester City Region.

The sensible Yorkshire response should be to ask what’s in it for us? How can we do better? We need devolution too.

First, let’s be clear what George Osborne’s proposal is really about. It looks like yet another Tory tinkering with local government of the type which has led them first to create the big metropolitan counties under Peter Walker, then to abolish them under Margaret Thatcher, and now to recreate them on the ground that big is beautiful.

Or is it what this country really needs: a reversal of those steady processes of centralisation which have robbed local government of all power and a lot of its money to control everything from London? We need to ensure it becomes the latter.

If we are to regenerate the North and stop the drain of talent, power and money to London, power must be handed back from the South to the North. We need the stimulus of deciding our own priorities and controlling our own destinies.

We need the synergy which comes from deciding spending and using power for our purposes and our needs, rather than those of the dominant South East.

Britain is the most centralised country outside Luxembourg or Monaco (both of which are all centre and no country). Britain alone has failed to undertake effective regionalisation of the type France has developed and which has always existed in Federal Germany and the US.

We have become the only country in the world whose capital is so huge, so rich and so spoiled for spending it drains our pale provincial centres and reduces local government to lugging begging bowls to London. Healthy democracy and effective management both require us to hand power down and liberate the energy of our regions.

At long last, forced by the Scottish referendum, the Government is grudgingly beginning to move down the devolution road. More power is promised to the devolved systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Devo Manc has been lauded as a first step on the English devolution road.

Greater Manchester, a coalition of 12 authorities, is promised power over the National Health Service and transport, although the details are still vague.

This is an important step, and welcome. Yet it is only asymmetrical devolution, something made available to privileged cities which will be denied to smaller centres like Grimsby and to the rolling rural areas of North Yorkshire or Lincolnshire. It will be a one winged bird which will find it difficult to fly, let alone soar. Yet it does bring us to the nub of our Yorkshire problem.

What Lancashire gets today we should have tomorrow. If not sooner. But we need it to be built on a better and firmer basis than Lancashire’s lumping of 12 boroughs in a shotgun marriage, with a Super Mayor as figurehead.

We need it to be a part of a genuine process of devolution.

So far two proposals lie on the table. Lord Haskins has proposed a coalition of Northern Local Enterprise Partnerships. Good idea, but unaccountable.

“One North” proposes three other city regions centred on Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, plus Teesside. There’s also tagging along behind the big three a new “City Region deal” for the old Humberside recently signed in Grimsby.

The sad lack in all these proposals is the strong base required if Yorkshire is to show the way to sensible devolution. You can’t hand major functions like the NHS, transport, housing or education to a patchwork quilt of cities. You can’t exclude the smaller cities and towns, the remote areas and the commuter zones. Nor can you create real democratic control through a two-tier system of indirect running by collections of local authorities.

The practical way forward must be to revert to the old planning regions. In our case that would be Yorkshire and the Humber, minus Teesside. Call it “Greater Yorkshire”. It would give us an area with a clear identity, common needs and a population of over five million, roughly the same as Scotland. It would combine Leeds and Sheffield in a unit big enough to handle major functions and run an effective democracy.

It is no use saying regional devolution was rejected by New Labour. It wasn’t really on offer. I warned John Prescott, who’d fought for real devolution, that it wouldn’t work. He replied that it was the best he could get. So we put up a weak proposal which wasn’t worth voting for.

But create a strong and natural region and we could show the rest of England the way to democratic devolution, to the mobilisation of regional energy and to flourishing regional government. If they want to tread it, that’s up to them. We certainly should.

Austin Mitchell is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby. He is standing down at the election.