How could we make the ‘devolution revolution’ work for all of Yorkshire?

Aspirations: Caution must be taken to ensure devolution benefits more than just core cities such as York.

Aspirations: Caution must be taken to ensure devolution benefits more than just core cities such as York.

  • In the wake of the Government’s devolution deal with Sheffield, there are growing fears that the break-up of Yorkshire could compromise the future of the county’s rural heartlands – and Hull. Two of the region’s MPs, Diana Johnson and 
Julian Sturdy, set out their concerns in a Parliamentary debate.
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DIANA JOHNSON - LABOUR MP FOR HULL NORTH:

JUST two years ago, in an article about Britain’s so-called decaying towns, The Economist described cities like Hull as suffering because, over many decades, the state had been too much rather than too little involved. It made no reference to the fact that other parts of the country, such as London and the South East, had benefited from more favoured status and more support.

I think that Ministers will regret that that view was expressed, and will recognise that places like Hull should not be abandoned as The Economist suggested. In fact, there is evidence that the northern regeneration boosted by devolution will increase overall national economic growth, which, of course, we will all welcome.

I do, however, have specific concerns about the current proposal which are conditional on councils accepting a single, made-in-Whitehall model of local governance, with the concept of elected mayors. That model is being pushed through via backroom deals, not as a result of proper consultation with communities, and it is even being done in areas where voters have previously rejected the elected mayor model.

This ‘one-size-fits-all’ centralism misunderstands local variations of geography and economic life. What may work well in Greater Manchester may not work for areas such as Hull and the Humber, and I had hoped that we had left behind Henry Ford’s idea of, “any colour provided it is black” or what Douglas Jay described as “the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best”.

Real devolution should not be imposed top down, from the centre. It should allow the creation of models whereby local leaders can be accountable to their voters, not to Whitehall, for decisions that are then made locally. Genuine devolution must transfer powers and responsibility from Whitehall, and devolution must have clear objectives. Structures that then emerge in each part of the country should reflect local factors. Devolution is a means to an end, not an end in itself; the Government have not provided enough clarity about that.

Secondly, this devolution comes against a backdrop of severe funding cuts , which since 2010 have been focused most heavily on the most deprived areas, and more are coming down the track. Blame will be devolved more than power.

Devolved decision-making requires fairer funding and local revenue-raising powers, free from outdated Treasury rules or gimmicks. It means freedom to innovate and get better results than if the powers remained in Whitehall.

We need localised power on raising capital investment for infrastructure, transport, flood defences and social housing. Localising business rates is potentially progressive, but powers must apply to areas with no elected mayor, too. Moreover, robust transitional arrangements are needed so that poorer areas do not lose out, as they have done in local government grant distribution since 2010.

Thirdly, in the digital age, there are fewer excuses that Government can use not to devolve more Whitehall jobs to the regions.

Fourthly, although local innovation helps raise national standards, we do risk fragmentation in areas such as the NHS, and that could damage front-line services for local communities.

Fifthly, I want to talk a little about recent events that affect my city of Hull and the Yorkshire bids that have gone forward. Civic and business figures across Yorkshire have been jumping through hoops to meet arbitrary deadlines for signing up to Whitehall’s model of devolution.

There are already several bids for Yorkshire, and they fragment the true potential for Yorkshire to have proper devolution to the county. We need to consider the needs of the South Bank of the Humber, because both the North and South Bank need to work together to ensure that we unlock the power of the Humber estuary as the “energy estuary”, as it has been described. Hull also has common interests with North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, for example on tourism, but we need a proper debate on whether the Greater Yorkshire model is the one that best serves the county and really does unlock that potential.

Hull is a key city, but it is not one of the self-selecting “core cities”. As a result, Hull has risked being excluded from the deals currently being done. Although it may not be a disaster in some respects, Hull could be left out when issues such as transport or broadband are discussed, and that would be very regrettable.

Hull has to be part of the Northern Powerhouse if that is really to be worth its name. Despite many Hull successes, including investment by Siemens and being awarded the City of Culture status in 2017, which we have achieved without an elected mayor, we still recognise that we need to reverse decades of decline in our traditional industries.

Hull needs a longer-term regeneration effort spanning decades, as has been enjoyed by areas that faced similar challenges in the past.

JULIAN STURDY, CONSERVATIVE MP FOR YOUR OUTER:

IT is clear that devolution means different things to different parts of the country. That is why giving powers back to local communities is so important, as different regions can champion their strengths while taking steps to address the challenges they face.

Speaking as a proud Yorkshireman, and looking at what devolution might bring to our great county, it is essential that the whole of Yorkshire benefits from the devolved powers on offer. Nowhere should be left behind. This is not just about our cities; this is about empowering our rural hinterland. Manchester and Sheffield have now secured settlements, and the precedent for county-wide devolution has been set by Cornwall. However, the question of devolving powers to the rest of Yorkshire remains to be answered.

Of the four competing bids the Treasury received, it is my sincere hope that the Chancellor will recognise the unique strengths of the Greater Yorkshire bid. Sadly, there are some who would prefer to see our great county carved up. Doing so could, sadly, only serve to marginalise our rural and coastal communities, which are as much a part of Yorkshire as the metropolitan centres of Leeds and Bradford.

Tearing the three Ridings apart would undermine the strong bonds of culture, identity and friendship – Yorkshire is a very friendly place – and weaken what we could achieve.

The devolution project is about scale, with communities coming together to be greater than the sum of their parts. Bringing many parts of Yorkshire together under a Greater Yorkshire bid would allow us to use the Yorkshire brand to unleash our true potential. It is clear that people want to see us put old rivalries aside, and devolution should
not be used as just a power-grabbing exercise. The public have placed their trust in us to devolve the powers they need to succeed, and it would be a betrayal to put petty party politics first.

That gives rise to the question, though, of why such deals, which should be owned and led by local businesses and communities, are instead being negotiated, to some degree, behind closed doors. Negotiations cannot be completely open – I accept that – but there has to be an opportunity to scrutinise the devolution deals on offer before they are accepted by local authorities. The greatest danger in politics, and the downfall of many governments, is to stop listening to the people, thinking that we in the House of Commons know best.

That brings me to one area of devolution about which I am yet to be completely convinced. People have told us time and again that they do not want elected mayors. In 2004, plans for regional assemblies were abandoned after the North East gave a resounding no to such a proposal. Of the 10 referendums held in our largest cities in 2012, nine gave another resounding no to elected mayors. True devolution can succeed only when we listen to what people tell us.

Where are we heading on this devolution journey and what is the ultimate end-game? As Scotland has shown, does devolution satisfy the need for local decision making, or does it ultimately lead to division and even greater demands for more power? Once Pandora’s box has been opened, can it ever be closed again?

Although I very much support the principle of devolution and what the Government is trying to achieve, we must be aware that this is not going to be a smooth journey. We need clarity on where devolution is going to 
take us. We must move with caution and get the right deals for the right reasons. Do we have to have elected mayors – another layer of politics –to deliver that? I am not convinced as yet.

The ultimate aim of devolution must be to close the historic North-South divide, not by dragging London down, but by learning from its example and raising our game to compete with the best in the world. A Greater Yorkshire deal – a Yorkshire brand – could compete with anywhere in the world.

Closing the North-South divide can be achieved only if devolution is allowed to percolate right through our great county.

Like the Tour de Yorkshire, it must run from Settle to Scarborough, from Whitby to Wensleydale, taking in all the country’s market towns, coastal resorts and ancient cities – in short, the very best that Yorkshire has to offer. We must not rush this once-in-a-generation opportunity for greater powers.

Let us get the right deal for our regions and the right deal for a Greater Yorkshire.

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