COME on North and East Yorkshire – are you going to meekly acquiesce to the Leeds-centric devolution deal now being cobbled together or are you going to come out fighting and ensure that your economies are intrinsic to the future prosperity of this county?
I sincerely hope it is the latter. If Yorkshire is to become an economic powerhouse, it has to make the most of this county’s brand by pooling its expertise and setting up a leadership structure which enables the region to speak with one strong voice on the big issues, like winning new jobs and investment, so it does not lose out to rivals like Greater Manchester and the North East.
This will not happen, however, if council chief executives, leaders and other interested parties are allowed to carve up Yorkshire in a cack-handed manner which gives rise to the suggestion that self-interest is standing in the way of the greater good.
It follows revelations in this newspaper that Leeds and its neighbouring authorities in West Yorkshire want to set up a new power base with Harrogate, York, Selby and Craven councils in order to make the most of the devolved powers being offered by George Osborne.
This is a bizarre grouping – Ingleton, a picture postcard village on the northern tip of Craven, would be included while resorts on the East Coast such as Scarborough would be excluded. Why one and not the other?
I detect clear unease at this turn of events – the word “arrogance” is being whispered in the corridor of powers because this geographical hotch-potch appears to overlook the expert view that any break-up of the districts that come under the auspices of North Yorkshire County Council would require a special Act of Parliament to be passed.
There is also dismay at the extent to which rural and coastal communities could be marginalised – a repeated criticism of David Cameron’s localism agenda has been a failure to recognise the specific challenges facing these areas after regional development agencies such as Yorkshire Forward were replaced with local enterprise partnerships.
What happens next? Much will, of course, depend on whether the invitation sent to the four North Yorkshire councils is accepted – or not. Much also hinges on any smoke and mirror promises made in the corridors of power and whether the legal obstacles can be overcome relatively smoothly. This is likely to take precedence over the views of local taxpayers. Don’t expect residents, the people who should matter most of all, to be given much of a say.
But it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that North and East Yorkshire leaders could call the bluff of their counterparts in the West Riding. Here’s how. Every council in North Yorkshire opts to forge an alliance with East Riding Council – and also Hull – under the title “Greater York” which has a certain cachet. This leaves the West Yorkshire councils – Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield – on their own and pondering whether they can compete against the North West or whether they should unite with North and East Yorkshire under the “Greater Yorkshire” umbrella.
In turn, this puts the onus on leaders in the south of the county to decide whether their best interests are served by a new alliance with a conglomerate of councils from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire – or whether they, too, would be better off uniting under the white rose of Yorkshire.
This is just one hypothesis – there are several other scenarios in play – but it is illustrative of the need for the greater good of Yorkshire to take precedence.
The approach locally also stands in total contrast to the progress that continues to be made by civic leaders in Greater Manchester, Cornwall and elsewhere who are already making the most of the new powers on transport, jobs, healthcare and other policies that have been devolved to them.
Of course, their geography helps. Cornwall is a compact county on the South West’s tip while decision-making in the North West gravitates towards Manchester. In contrast, Yorkshire is a much more diverse region – both in terms of its actual size and the fact that its cities, countryside communities and coastal towns all have distinct identities.
Yet, because of this, the biggest opportunities are here in Yorkshire if a way can be found to advance those big issues critical to the future of all – transport, infrastructure investment and skills training are three examples – on a region-wide basis.
As such, why can’t every council chief executive, town hall leader and MP be invited to a summit to discuss how the whole of Yorkshire can make the most of the unprecedented powers being offered up by the Treasury? I’m sure the Archbishop of York would be the most impartial of chairs while York Racecourse would be a suitably neutral location (they do very good tea and biscuits).
It’s time for the petty parochialism of the past to be consigned to history and for Yorkshire’s elected leaders to start pulling together and standing up for the whole county rather than just those areas which suit the county’s political elite.
It’s not too much to ask, is it?