Nigel Sollitt: Public must lead the way to Yorkshire devolution

What now for Yorkshire devolution?
What now for Yorkshire devolution?
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FOLLOWING the Scottish referendum of 2014, one Yorkshire MP commented the “devolution genie is out of the bottle now”. It was clear there was no going back on the issue of delivering increased powers, not only north of the border but also to the English regions.

At the cross-party Yorkshire Devolution Movement, we had been calling for some time for a greater say to be had here in Yorkshire over major policy issues confronting the county.

As a result of this growing clamour, George Osborne introduced his Northern Powerhouse proposal as a means of economic regeneration in Yorkshire and in other parts of the North.

While the former Chancellor’s proposal had merits, its implementation failed to be more than a conversation between elites at national and local levels. Little wonder then that the entire process has passed people by.

This feeling of disengagement has been highlighted in a recent survey which found a disturbing lack of awareness amongst Yorkshire folk regarding the devolution plans for their own county.

The survey, carried out by Survation, shows that most people in Yorkshire are inadequately informed of the Government’s plans for devolution with almost 55 per cent saying that they know nothing at all about them. Even in South Yorkshire, where devolution to a city region is planned, people are overwhelmingly unaware.

One of the reasons we commissioned the survey was to expose this lack of awareness and the problems it will cause in the devolution process so that appropriate action will be taken by politicians and others.

Only by including ordinary Yorkshire folk in the devolution debate will they engage in the process and help ensure that Yorkshire gets the right settlement and leadership.

Up until now, there has been no proper debate on devolution for Yorkshire. Any discussion has been between local council leaders and the Government’s Treasury team.

No wonder people feel uninformed and disengaged. Putting more power in the hands of people who live in Yorkshire and know about Yorkshire rather than having decisions taken in London has to be a good thing. However, people have to be involved in this process, just as they were in Scotland, to give any plans credibility.

This has not happened in Yorkshire and the survey bears witness to that.

What is desperately needed is some form of ‘conversation’ which engages both the political classes and the wider public. This idea worked well in Scotland when it came to setting up their Parliament in the 1990s and resulted in huge public engagement in their recent referendum debate. We want something similar for Yorkshire, especially now that uncertainty hangs over devolution plans here and over the Northern Powerhouse proposal in general.

While we are concerned about the lack of engagement, we are enthused that the responses show that the majority of those who want to see some form of change want a wider Yorkshire settlement, a Yorkshire Parliament, rather than divisive city regions – even amongst people from the proposed city regions of Sheffield.

One-third of respondents said they want to see some form of change and of those, more than half want a directly elected Yorkshire Parliament with powers similar to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly; only 36 per cent want city regions with an elected mayor while nine per cent want ‘something else’.

We are encouraged by the fact that the survey shows the greater the number of Yorkshire folk who become adequately informed, the greater the majority demanding a Yorkshire Parliament.

An informed Yorkshire people is therefore key to achieving the best outcome and the best way to achieve that is by including them in the debate. How they are governed is ultimately up to them of course.

The Yorkshire Devolution Movement is doing the groundwork to make that debate happen. We plan to include not just political parties, but also business groups, trade unions, faith groups and various bodies representing other strands of political opinion as well as civic society in general. Hopefully, by broadening out this ‘conversation’, we get people engaged along the way so that in turn we achieve meaningful devolution for the whole of Yorkshire and not the divisive, limited and undemocratic proposals people are faced with now.

Nigel Sollitt is the chair of the cross-party Yorkshire Devolution Movement. See https://yorkshiredevolution.co.uk for further details.