Paul Salveson: Key issues in the great debate over Yorkshire mayor

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LONDON has one, New York has one – so why not Yorkshire? George Osborne is keen to get all the Northern city regions signed up to having elected mayors, whether we like it or not. Agree to George’s blandishments and we’ll get more funding to take forward the slightly tarnished Northern Powerhouse.

Mayors can be a good thing. Few would doubt that having a strong, well-resourced mayoralty for London has been a significant factor in the capital’s success so what’s not to like about having them up North?

One obvious objection is that when many cities were invited to vote on whether they wanted an elected mayor, most people offered a polite ‘no thanks’. But things move on and what the Chancellor is offering is not just a city mayor but something that would a much bigger area – a city region.

But what do we mean by city region and is it just a nerdish term for “Greater Leeds” or plain old “West Yorkshire”? There’s no doubt that West Yorkshire has worked pretty well as a metropolitan body. Despite the politically-motivated abolition of the old West Yorkshire County Council back in the Thatcher years, transport, police, fire and waste disposal have continued to be managed at the West Yorkshire level.

More recently we’ve seen the creation of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which brings a much stronger focus on economic development, alongside transport and skills. The same has happened in South Yorkshire. And so far, the combined authorities, with Greater Manchester very much in the lead, have started to work reasonably well.

But there are two major issues nobody in the mainstream political parties seems to be addressing. These are democratic accountability and the question of scale.

The emerging combined authorities are run by the leaders of the constituent local authorities. However, this involves taking power further and further away from the electorate, with major decisions being taken by an unaccountable body. Having an elected mayor to oversee a combined authority is a step in the right direction, but it goes nowhere near far enough.

Taking London as an example, it’s easy to forget that Boris Johnson’s work is scrutinised by the democratically-elected Greater London Assembly. Yet I haven’t heard anyone suggesting the West or South Yorkshire combined authorities should become directly-elected bodies.

Why not? The suspicion is that the politicians on the combined authorities are very happy with things as they are.

We should also ask whether the existing city regions, based around the major centres such as Leeds and Sheffield, are of the right scale. I’d say they aren’t. Yorkshire makes a lot of sense as a single unit, in terms of transport, the economy and, crucially, people’s identity.

I’m a Lancastrian who has lived in Yorkshire for over 20 years. I have to admit that the sense of Yorkshireness remains remarkably strong, more so than over in the red rose county, which has been hacked to pieces. So a Yorkshire regional government, perhaps presided over by a mayor, has quite a lot going for it.

I find that here in Huddersfield, my home, people have a lot of civic pride in their town, although not in the artificial creation that is “Kirklees” and even less sense of belonging to a city region based on Leeds. And people in Leeds – as well as Sheffield, Hull and York – are loyal to their great cities but not city regions.

If we had an elected Yorkshire parliament it could have a powerful, directly-elected leader – call them “mayor” or whatever you like. They must be part of a strong team that is democratically accountable and elected by a fair voting system to ensure the whole of Yorkshire gets balanced representation, including rural areas.

Alongside that, we need to review local government in Yorkshire, recognising that authorities like my own Kirklees manage to combine being both too big and too small at the same time: too small to be properly strategic but too big to command people’s civic loyalties.

Whenever I go to towns like Dewsbury my heart sinks: the magnificent town hall is a reminder that this place once had its own strong, proud local government. Now it’s a colony of Huddersfield, without even a town council.

It is heartening to see politicians from across the spectrum starting to recognise that “Yorkshire” should be the right unit of regional government. We’re the same size as Scotland but without any of the powers enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament.

But we need a proper debate. A Yorkshire Citizens’ Convention? Yes please! I just hope they’ll let exiled Lancastrians like me in.

Paul Salveson was Yorkshire First’s parliamentary candidate for Colne Valley in the general election. He is visiting professor in transport and logistics at the University of Huddersfield. You can find out more at www.paulsalveson.org.uk