FOR a county which has long been the butt of jokes, we’re taking ourselves pretty seriously these days. Never before has Yorkshire had to think about our place in the world like this. If our region was to become devolved and responsible under our own leader for our own economy, productivity, transport, health, culture and tourism, we would represent an area similar in size to Scotland, Denmark and Ireland. We’re talking about five million people. That’s a lot of voices to shout up.
And with it being a lot of Yorkshire voices, there’s bound to be arguments and fallings out. There will be commonality of course, on matters such as health and motorway traffic for instance, but there will be huge differences too. The concerns and ambitions of those working on the land in rural North Yorkshire will differ hugely from those attempting entrepreneurship in the post-industrial world of South Yorkshire. From Scarborough to Sheffield, from Rotherham to Richmond, our needs and ambitions cannot be taken for granted nor assumed to be the same.
If George Osborne’s vision of devolved regions does come to pass, then we have to pull off a tricky balancing act. We have to find a way of getting our own personal and local ideas centre stage, without the clamour of individuals drowning out a purposeful united message. As a region, we have the ability, the talent and the drive to punch above our weight on the national and international stage. Just look at how we handled the challenge of hosting the Tour de France last year. It was as if the rest of the country did not exist. However, if we are to pull this off, we must find a way of bringing together the very diversity which makes us so rich.
Of course, this is ultimately the responsibility of whoever ends up as elected leader. He or she would be responsible for all activities related to regional economic development, including the creation of jobs, the development of infrastructure such as public transport and roads, housing, planning and inward investment. Let’s be honest though. Most of us wouldn’t really give a second thought to who runs all of this day to day, as long as it happens. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that most of us are actually quite blasé about that kind of thing. If it happens then, we must be careful therefore not to let the process of devolution leave us ordinary people behind. We all have, potentially, an important part to play in a devolved Yorkshire.
If we don’t become involved as active citizens, any changes will amount to little more than an administrative exercise. Do we really want to feel that the blueprint for our own future has been handed down to us from Whitehall and Westminster? Wouldn’t it be better if we could have a hand in shaping our own destiny? This is our challenge, to think about how we can each contribute to a strong and influential Yorkshire.
This “devolution” should be done differently. If you can remember the days of Yorkshire Forward, you will recall that although the body did good work in raising the profile of our region, much of its operation remained mysterious and unaccountable to the general public.
This new initiative gives us the chance to start a mini-revolution. Instead of sitting there and waiting for ideas and funding to be doled out, we should make the opportunities ourselves. This would contribute to creating an identity for Yorkshire which is based on real and solid achievement, as far from a PR exercise as it is possible to be.
For instance, I’d like to see our region become world-renowned for its food and fresh produce. I’d like to see our textiles industry, once the envy of the world, given fresh investment and impetus. We should give priority to promoting tourism, from the stunning scenery of our countryside and coastline to grand country houses and forest trails. We should also speak proudly of our theatres, and art galleries and museums. This is proper Yorkshire common sense. Yet how many of us are guilty of not even knowing what happens on our own doorstep?
This is nothing less than a root-and-branch re-evaluation of Yorkshire’s purpose and identity. It always amazes me that for a county not known for being backwards at coming forwards, we can be so reticent. I can think of at least three major, world-class engineering companies within a few miles of my house. If this was any other place, their very presence would be shouted from the rooftops. I know this happens in other towns too. Yet why? I don’t know if it’s modesty, lack of confidence, or simply that good old Yorkshire dedication of just getting on with the job. Whatever it is, and whether devolution happens or not, it is time we changed as a county.