AS the devolution debate in God’s Own County gathers pace, Yorkshire’s political and business leaders need to provide their own solution to the question that America’s senior statesman Henry Kissinger asked about the fledgling EEC: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
For, if David Cameron, or the increasingly influential George Osborne, were minded to pick up the phone, they could take their pick from 54 MPs, 22 local council leaders (and chief executives), six Members of the European Parliament and a complex network of combined authorities, local enterprise partnerships and respected region-wide bodies like Welcome to Yorkshire, each with competing agendas.
Never before has Yorkshire been led by so many, one reason why some are reluctant to sacrifice their personal fiefdoms for the greater good. This is one reason why many industrialists – people who do know how to create wealth and opportunities – have opted to sit on the sidelines; the slow pace of change within the public sector is just not for them.
This fudging of decisive decision-making also stands in contrast to the innovation and ingenuity being shown by those devolved nations, cities and regions stealing a march on Yorkshire because they have recognised the significance of the Kissinger conundrum.
If it is Scotland, the Prime Minister knows he can speed-dial Nicola Sturgeon. It’s Peter Robinson in Northern Ireland, Carwyn Jones in Wales, Boris Johnson in London, John Pollard in Cornwall, which is the latest beneficiary of a regional devolution deal or Sir Richard Leese in Greater Manchester who has already shown what is possible when 10 neighbouring councils work together.
And so the list goes on – the North East is now the latest region to recognise that it, too, will be left behind if its councils do not come together to create a 21st century business infrastructure.
Of course, the obstacles to be overcome in Yorkshire are far more substantial – not only is this the largest English region in terms of geography but it is the most diverse and the challenges facing inner city communities are very different to those confronting this county’s picture postcard villages or coastal communities.
However this county’s size and strength should, conversely, be regarded as an advantage – Yorkshire’s GDP of £90bn is already greater than the output of many European countries and this debate does need to be considered from an international perspective.
As such, it would be a betrayal of the good people of Yorkshire if the current crop of leaders do not seize the moment so this county – a sleeping giant – not only becomes a northern powerhouse in its own right, but is integral to this Government’s plan to narrow the North-South divide. It is time for those in positions of influence to lead from the front rather than wait to be led by others.
However council chiefs do need to acknowledge the public’s concerns arising from John Prescott’s botched plan to introduce regional assemblies in 2004: voters were unconvinced that an extra tier of government would be cheaper – or more effective – in the longer term.
People do genuinely want more decisions to be taken here rather than in Whitehall, but they do wonder whether a city like Leeds needs 99 councillors when there are just 128 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. They also question why there are eight district councils operating under North Yorkshire County Council’s auspices when the neighbouring East Riding is an unitary authority. And they’re fearful about the power and resources already passed to agencies whose leaders are not accountable.
This must change – the cost of local government has remained unchecked for too long and it will be far easier to provide a streamlined structure if one person is heading the board of Yorkshire plc and providing the type of visionary leadership that enabled this county to host the Tour de France. Issues relating to skills training or the future of public transport are not exclusive to cities like Leeds and Sheffield. They’re also integral to the future of those market towns, coastal resorts and villages where families are paying a heavy price for failures of policy.
If Yorkshire’s voice is to be heard in 10 Downing Street, this county needs a champion who can speak up for all and ensure that the parochialism of the past does not stand in the way of the fantastic future that awaits if the region answers the Kissinger question by placing its faith in a leader with the clout to persuade private firms to relocate here rather than London or Scotland. However it will not happen if the pedestrian pace of the present persists – the Prime Minister will simply hang up and call a city or region that is dialled into the devolution debate.