PITY the poor proverbial foreign student of public administration, sent to research British local government.
As well as wrestling with the differences between parish, district, county, unitary, metropolitan district and London borough councils, and their arcane divisions of responsibilities, they will also have to fathom the nature of artificially constructed “city regions” (often incorporating several cities), combined authorities and the powers of mayors – ceremonial mayors, elected local authority mayors and combined authority mayors, also known as metro mayors or regional mayors.
Why seek to complicate this picture further by suggesting that we should establish a Yorkshire Mayor and Parliament, tasked with representing the whole county and so bringing about further change to our already complex local government arrangements?
The answer is simple. For any devolution to really work, it needs to harness the power of a meaningful area and an area that people identify with and align themselves to. The answer to that in Scotland is the Scottish Parliament, in Wales currently the Welsh Assembly. In Leeds, Sheffield, York, Bradford, Huddersfield, Whitby, Barnsley and Reeth, the answer is Yorkshire – and proper democratic devolution.
Yorkshire’s brand, history, culture and reputation for sporting prowess is already world famous. It is something that everyone in the county is proud to champion, and it is clearly economically formidable. It offers the best platform to stimulate economic growth and create a real ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
Genuine devolution must always be based on giving local people more say by improving their understanding and participation in how they are governed. Proposals for imposed artificial ‘city region’ mayors fail completely on both counts.
How many people in York, Bradford or Skipton would feel loyalty to a Leeds city region mayor? Who in Doncaster and Barnsley feels excited about being ruled by a combined authority mayor based in Sheffield? But a mayor of Yorkshire working with – and accountable to a Yorkshire assembly that engages and involves all Yorkshire residents in its work could re-energise our enthusiasm for local democracy.
Who did not cringe when David Cameron remarked “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else, we didn’t realise they hated each other so much”? Although it was clearly intended as a joke, the best jokes contain an element of truth. Ironically though, the squabbles over Yorkshire devolution have arisen largely as a result of the over-prescriptive model that the Government imposes. Strict parameters mean that devolution deals are most effectively taken up by city regions, dominated by large councils in our biggest cities, where the ruling groups can too easily keep additional power and funding to themselves.
So it is disappointing that Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, moved so quickly to dismiss the opportunity to consider seriously a Yorkshire Mayor. It is, he tells us, “very clear it is not legally possible”. This is the poorest of poor excuses. Governments amend legislation when they choose. The real reason comes later in his comments in The Yorkshire Post on Monday: “Changing the law to allow a Yorkshire agreement could lead to devolution deals in other parts of the country crashing down.”
So the truth is that the devolution offered by this Conservative Government is phoney devolution. Their plans are devolving power not to people, but to groups of council leaders, chief executives and the advisers who sit around them.
This reveals all too clearly the cynicism that lies behind the Government’s approach to devolution – they will countenance it only so long as the terms can be dictated by Westminster. They fear that a united Yorkshire would be successful and popular and would take power away from them, but surely (if this were genuine) that is the whole point.
The complexities of local government that baffle our foreign student also confuse us. But the truth is that the more complex structures and responsibilities are, the less power individual citizens have to hold the authorities that they rely upon to account.
So give us devolution that engages and excites people, that is based on a real area and that has real power but clear accountability. Unlike the Government’s proposals, which fail on every count, uniting Yorkshire as a political and economic entity would deliver each one.
Devolution should be local people electing both a Yorkshire Mayor and representatives to a Yorkshire Parliament. It is time to campaign, together across parties and across the region, for this to give us something meaningful that would engage people in democracy, make decision makers more accountable and harness the potential that Yorkshire has nationally and internationally.
Greg Mulholland is the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West.