Tom Richmond: In praise of Prezza... or at least his devolution vision

John Prescott.
John Prescott.
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HERE are seven words that I don’t get to write very often... John Prescott was ahead of his tim

I refer, of course, to his desire in the early 2000s to introduce regional assemblies to counter the economic and political dominance of London and the South-East.

Knocked on the head after voters in the North East – the test-bed for regional devolution – rejected the Prescott Plan in a referendum, what would be the outcome if the vote was rerun today?

It would, in all probability, be closer than the result recorded on November 4, 2004, when 696,519 voters (77.9 per cent) opposed the proposals with just 197,310 (22.1 per cent) in favour.

After all, turnout was fractionally less than 48 per cent and there is far greater public awareness about devolution, not least the North-South divide on infrastructure investment and the empowerment of the Celtic nations.

The then Deputy Prime Minister, and Hull East MP, received little support from Cabinet colleagues – by all accounts Tony Blair only sanctioned the referendum to silence his number two. And the cack-handed pro-devolution campaign was amateur hour – Lord Prescott’s memoirs, Prezza: Pulling No Punches, reveal how a recorded telephone message was sent out at 5am on the eve of polling day saying: “This is John Prescott, I hope you’ll be voting for a regional assembly tomorrow...” Totally tactless.

Even though the Labour veteran is adamant that regional devolution will happen – he used his latest Sunday Mirror column to challenge Theresa May to make it integral to the political changes that will follow Britain’s exit from the EU – the flawed 2004 campaign set back the devolution debate for a generation.

Because this was Lord Prescott’s pet project, and he was regarded as a figure of fun by friends and foes alike, it became too political when, in fact, all of the main parties, community chiefs and business leaders realise that the North is the poor relation when it comes to transport spending – where is this region’s equivalent of London’s Crossrail linking Hull, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool? At the back of the queue.

There is also the view that the assemblies would have been little more than a talking shop at a time when taxpayers were increasingly aware of public sector profligacy, notably with

the regional development agencies such as Yorkshire Forward – the public did

not, and do not, want more tiers

of government.

Why does this matter? Behind-the-scenes talks this month will be critical as rival regions prepare for the introduction of directly-elected mayors with powers comparable to those enjoyed by Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and now Sadiq Khan, in London.

With the previously agreed deal for Sheffield City Region reportedly on the brink of collapse at the 11th hour, and suggestions that Doncaster’s leaders are having second thoughts, there is, potentially, one last opportunity for Yorkshire councils to unite behind a plan which would see a single mayor overseeing the whole county.

This is what should happen:

Party political rivalries, and partisan pre-conceived views, should be put to one side – any gerrymandering to suit Labour, or the Conservatives, is of secondary importance to future prosperity.

Council leaders should then consider the prospective mayor’s priorities. Issues such as transport and skills, are common to urban and rural areas alike. Rival politicians probably have more in common than they are prepared to admit.

Assuming there is common ground on the remit, there should be a discussion about how the mayoral model will work and how the de facto first minister of Yorkshire will be held to account. The problem with the aforementioned RDAs, and now the combined authorities that have sprung up, is that genuine accountability has not existed.

Yorkshire’s leaders need then to finalise a plan, including management efficiencies at every town hall in the region, that is then put to a public vote in May of next year – I, for one, believe the electorate will listen favourably if the benefits are set out clearly.

Who should be Yorkshire’s mayor? It has to be significant that Andy Street, the former chief executive of department store John Lewis, is standing in the West Midlands – it makes a refreshing change from tried and tested failed politicians like Andy Burnham in Manchester – but who are the business executives here who are up for the challenge?

Will it happen? I don’t know. I first came to Yorkshire 15 years ago today for a job interview, and pride in this county, whether it be economic regeneration, cultural celebrations or sporting success, has never been greater.

Yet I, for one, am tired of the constant infighting between Leeds and Sheffield, and the daily backbiting between Labour and the Conservative politicians, while rival regions forge ahead.

Stand up and be counted or national, European and global entrepreneurs will, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s maxim, phone Manchester or Birmingham if they wish to invest outside of London.

The indomitable Sir Gary Verity and the Welcome to Yorkshire tourism agency have shown what is possible when this region is united by bringing global cycling events here – it’s now up to others to complete the journey that John Prescott started. It will be some legacy if, for once, they choose to put county before party.