Yorkshire ‘next in queue’ for home rule from Whitehall, says Clegg

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
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West and South Yorkshire could secure sweeping powers over transport, housing and skills from Whitehall before Christmas.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced today he wants Leeds and Sheffield and their surrounding areas to be next in line for major devolution of powers and budgets from London.

Rail services disrupted

Rail services disrupted

Greater Manchester was the first English city to agree such a deal on Monday which included the creation of a new directly-elected mayor for the city, an idea championed by Chancellor George Osborne.

Yorkshire council leaders have been sceptical about the elected mayor idea and were concerned the Government would make that the price of devolution.

But today Mr Clegg promised that would not be a condition and went further, suggesting the headlines of a devolution deal could be in place in time for the Autumn Statement in early December.

He said: “I have always been very very clear that I don’t want and I will not allow as Deputy Prime Minister for any part of Whithall to impose a strait jacket on how areas decide to govern themselves.

“It is not for Whitehall to start pointing a big long finger and dictating to areas how they govern themselves.

“I think it is important that as powers are devolved to local areas those powers are administered efficiently and accountably.”

Mr Clegg is also believed to have offered reassurances that Yorkshire devolution will not be a watered down version of that agreed with Manchester because of the reluctance on mayors.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority chairman Peter Box said: “We have shown at local level we can deliver. And to be optimistic if we get further power and further devolution we will make a big difference.”

Coun Box and Leeds Council leader Keith Wakefield both stressed that while they welcomed strides towards devolution, councils in the region continue to wrestle with budget cuts running to tens of millions of pounds.

Mr Clegg is also pressing for the electrification and upgrade of rail lines and the scrapping of outdated diesel pacer trains - branded ‘buses on rails’ by commuters - to be in Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement next month.

Mr Clegg wants the major cities of the North connected by electrified rail and maximum journey times between Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester cut to 40 minutes by 2025.

He also wants to see the M62 become an eight-lane motorway between Leeds and Manchester and improvements to the Woodhead Pass connecting Sheffield and Manchester.

Mr Clegg said: “London and South East has had billions of transport investment over recent years from HS1 to Crossrail to the Northern Line extension. The perfectly reasonable requests I have been hearing from the North are basics that are needed if we are to create a true economic hub in the North of England.

“The North needs improved transport now. The roads and railway lines connecting our great northern cities have seen improvements in recent years, but I want more. Much more.

“As we negotiate over what gets government funding in the Autumn Statement, one of my key priorities will be to change that. We need to get this started as soon as possible.”

He added: “Decrepit trains such as the Pacers, which are literally ancient buses on rails, are not a fair way for people in the North to get to and from work. They would not be deemed acceptable on London commuter lines, and they are not acceptable in the North.”

Mr Clegg hosted a summit in Leeds today as part of his Northern Futures initiative which aims to generate ideas on how to turn the North into a region that can compete globally.

New research by the Office of National Statistics shows the North is lagging behind on a range of key measures covering jobs, health and pay.

The major parties have been setting out their competing visions for the North economy in recent months with improved transport links a common theme.

Last week, the Prime Minister was in Leeds to announce the Government’s intention to press ahead with a high speed east-west rail link dubbed HS3.

Mary Creagh, until last night the Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh, said: “You can’t trust Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems’ empty promises to the North given his record of failure in Government.

“Transport infrastructure across the North desperately needs improving and a Labour Government would leave bidders for the Northern franchise in no doubt that we want to see the back of Pacer trains, whose retirement is long overdue.”

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The Deputy Prime Minister has added his voice to the welcome consensus that the north’s rail infrastructure is overdue significant investment. The Government needs to use both the Autumn Statement and the re-franchising of the north’s rail network to show it means business. That means upgrading services not just between Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, but right across the north. We’ll also be looking for an expanded programme of electrification and a firm timetable for getting rid of all the ageing Pacer trains. “

“By contrast, proposing more lanes of traffic through the Woodhead Pass would be a backward step, giving rise the concerns about major road building in the National Park.”