Tim Farron: Forget a Northern Powerhouse, let’s have a Yorkshire Powerhouse

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Region has what it takes to go it alone on devolution.

DEVOLUTION is now very much in vogue at the moment. It seems every politician is talking about metro mayors, powerhouses or new settlements, not least George Osborne, who claimed in the Budget that “devolution in England has only just begun”.

But for all his grand rhetoric, the Chancellor is perfectly happy with the fact that Whitehall still controls the rest of England, in a way now unimaginable in Scotland and Wales. Both Scotland and Yorkshire have populations of around 5.3 million people, and comparable economies worth £117bn and £102bn respectively. Yet Yorkshire has nowhere near the amount of powers as those being devolved to Scotland. We must change that.

The Northern Powerhouse was supposed to be the first step in fixing this – but let’s be honest, it is suffering a real power failure. Grand plans for upgrades of train lines across the Pennines, which could bring real benefits, have hit the buffers, as has the electrification of the Leeds-Harrogate-York line.

Towns and businesses had already begun planning for the benefits this new infrastructure would bring, but it’s clear that, when money is tight in Whitehall, this support is the first thing to go and it doesn’t really matter what the people affected think.

Of course, it’s not just the Conservatives that ignore local opinions on what is best for Yorkshire. Labour are equally at fault. In summer 2012, the Government gave Leeds £170m for the New Generation Trolleybus scheme.

While this might be welcome, the truth is that the previous Labour Government had decided Leeds could have either a trolleybus scheme or else it would get nothing.

Genuine devolution should surely mean allowing Leeds to use that money for the transport solution local people feel is best, not what Whitehall servants based 200 miles away think.

I want to see a real devolution revolution in our country. That means allowing individual communities to decide how they make decisions, what they spend and how that money is raised.

I want to do this because the Liberal Democrats and I fundamentally believe that power devolved is power better used. I see in my own area just across the Pennines in the Lake District that local people in my area know what transport, infrastructure and facilities we need better than Whitehall and Westminster. The job of Westminster must be to help and enable communities to grow and thrive based on their plans and not ones that suit a civil servant.

I want to see real extra powers being given to communities in Yorkshire – particularly over the economy, jobs and transport. I want to see people being given the decision over what type of governance they have, and most of all I want to see money follow the devolution of responsibilities. All too often devolving power has been used as a tool for cutting costs, undermining those who want to work to improve their area.

For example, under our plans local authorities would be able to agree and fast-track transport plans. Local people are clear they want a rail link to improve connectivity to Leeds-Bradford Airport. At the moment, 93 per cent of journeys are made by private transport such as cars or taxis. So the long running campaign spearheaded by my colleague Greg Mulholland MP would happen as a matter of priority.

That is why my party believes that Yorkshire’s future must be placed in the hands of those who live and work in the region. Rather than a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ that treats the North is one generic entity, let’s get specific and talk about the Yorkshire Powerhouse.

Let’s allow people who live in Yorkshire, and who ensured that the region last year created more jobs than all of France, to decide what works for them. Let’s build on the excellent manifesto released by The Yorkshire Post before the General Election to identify the next generation on infrastructure we need to build. Let’s help Hull make the most of being the 2017 UK City of Culture and let’s build upon the Local Enterprise Zones that have seen Yorkshire’s manufacturing base rise to 50 per cent above the UK average.

If that is ambitious then that is exactly what it should be. London may currently be the driver of the UK economy but the whole country wins if places like Yorkshire can also realise their potential. If northern towns and cities grew at the same rate projected for the UK, the national economy would be boosted by £44bn by 2030.

For those still sceptical that devolution really can help you only need to look at those rare occasions when central government lets go. Last year, Yorkshire showed through the Tour de France what it can do if Whitehall is prepared to trust local people a little.

The £27m budget, including £10m of central government money, was delivered entirely by local authorities, and Yorkshire duly delivered. The Tour’s visit boosted the UK economy by a staggering £130m. This is just one small example to show that if government is prepared to hand over powers then communities and Yorkshire as a whole will thrive.

Tim Farron MP is leader of the Liberal Democrats.