THE other night I took part in a televised BBC debate to discuss what future devolution for Yorkshire might look like. It was a depressing experience, because we never got into the meat of what devolution really means for the region.
It may be that Yorkshire, like many other regions in the UK, has become so used to the paternal arm of Westminster distributing its largesse as it sees fit that we have surrendered our own agency to central government. Or is it that the Government has sold the North the idea of economic self-determination but what we are being offered is a prescriptive vision that aims to mimic the London model?
George Osborne’s decision to anoint Manchester as the regional vanguard of devolution, and his threat that the Government will not release £300m in housing investment and freedoms and flexibilities unless the city accepts the appointment of a Metro Mayor, robs the North of the opportunity to develop its own economic and growth template.
When the possibility of regional devolution was first floated, many of us hoped this would usher in a period where northern leaders would put their tribal instincts aside and engage in a genuine conversation across borders on how we could meaningfully use our historical and current competitive advantage in manufacturing, construction, agriculture and other future growth industries to turn the North into an economic powerhouse that would export to local, national, European and global markets.
What the North needed was a ‘Big Conversation’ in which communities, young people, civil society, entrepreneurs, businesses and investors were engaged in developing the economic vision for our region.
Unfortunately the Chancellor’s decision to make Manchester the flagship city for regional devolution – with Leeds and Sheffield set to join the super-city league next month – is proving to be highly divisive. There is already unease in places like Bradford, Rotherham and some of the North’s fading coastal towns that they will potentially be left out in this brave new economic world as the three major cities suck in the investment, funding and employment opportunities.
There is a real risk that we will unwittingly create a two-tier economy with the three major cities steaming ahead, while the other regions languish, potentially creating a North-North and East-West economic divide.
Just at the time when the advent of HS2 and HS3 and the improvement in transport networks will link up the region as never before, we have a real opportunity to use our sizeable geography, our immense talent pool, our collective excellence in academic research, the global reach of our diverse multi-cultural communities and our rich tradition in manufacturing and industry to develop diverse economic clusters.
This would have been extremely attractive to national and international investors looking for a sound return on their monies. As things stand, however, the incremental model of devolution constrains us into developing an economic model that limits our potential within the bounds of our political geography rather than regional opportunity.
The imposition of a politically-elected Metro Mayor on the economic model for devolution will only perpetuate a parochial approach as the role is geographically specific. The position is also ultimately political and by its very nature partisan, ideological and subject to the vagaries of the election cycle.
The experiment with elected police and crime commissioners has been a disaster as it has politicised the role, increased bureaucracy, diverted precious resources from front-line policing and blurred the lines of accountability. The regeneration of the North is likely to be a long-term enterprise and, given the deep structural and systemic problems that the region faces, stability and continuity are paramount. Far better to recruit an economic tsar through an open competitive process who can work across the geographical, political, regional and community divides than be lumbered with an elected political appointee balancing the competing priorities of politics and economics.
It may serve the Chancellor’s purpose to offer the North economic autonomy six months away from a general election in which the political parties will need every vote to command a majority. However it does not serve the North well if we do not take this opportunity to create a long-term sustainable economic vision that not only establishes us as a leading national and international economic powerhouse but critically rejects the profound inequality that is the by-product of the London and South-East economic model.
If there is one message we should be giving the Chancellor and his Government – who may not be in political office beyond next May – it is this: We expect parity in any future government’s distribution of finances to the regions, but we will draw on our historical legacy of economic greatness to create a vibrant yet fair economy that is fit-for-purpose for the 21st century and beyond.