William Wallace: Yorkshire needs its own voice ahead of Brexit talks

WHO will speak for Yorkshire in the messy negotiations about financial and economic priorities within the UK that will accompany the process of Brexit?

Who will speak up for Yorkshire in Brexit negotations?
Who will speak up for Yorkshire in Brexit negotations?

In David Cameron’s response to the referendum result, he announced that the Government would consult the Scots, the Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations throughout the negotiations, as well as ‘other regional centres of power’ – by which he mainly meant London.

Theresa May has made a demonstration of that commitment by making early visits to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. But who would she come to consult in northern England? Will she even feel any need to do so?

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Self-government in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales has built into the structure of UK government regular procedures to take their interests into account. I sat on several government committees in the coalition Government in which separate agenda items were included for the presentation of Scots, Welsh and Ulster perspectives, while the interests of England were taken as understood.

Conservative MPs, predominantly from the south of England, have responded to Scottish devolution by calling for ‘English voters for English laws’ in Parliament, but this assumes that the interests of Yorkshire and the North East are little different from Kensington, Surrey and Kent.

On the doorstep across the North during the referendum campaign, there was as much resentment against London and its wealthy ‘establishment’ as against Brussels. Both were seen as having let down England’s old wealth-producing areas, as international finance and immigration transformed their old identity. The gap between the South East and the North has widened sharply over the last three decades, as closures and takeovers have left gaps in the northern economy and London has soared ahead.

Public spending has supported London’s rise, with massive investment in regional transport – in contrast to the dribble of funding for Northern schemes. Local authority budgets have been cut more sharply in Northern cities, while free schools have mushroomed with public subsidies across London and the Home Counties.

Money is the key issue over which the devolved administrations will bargain as the Brexit negotiations move forward. Scotland already has protection for its share of the UK budget through the ‘Barnett formula’; Northern Ireland has long been heavily subsidised from London. Paradoxically, one mechanism through which significant sums have been redistributed to Wales and the English regions has been through EU funds as they flow back into the UK. Boris Johnson denied throughout the campaign that any of our contributions to Brussels came back in this way, but as a former London mayor redistribution to poorer regions may not have mattered.

A leaked document from Manchester City Council since the referendum result suggests that £320m of EU funding for their city region is now at risk; Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle will be facing similar shortfalls.

The balance of public spending across England has been skewed towards the south since Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister: ‘reinforcing success’ in southern England’s scientific and university institutions, supporting the growth of London as a global city, and responding to the rise in population across the South East.

Sadiq Khan, as London mayor, is now calling for London to be given greater control over its tax revenues and expenditure, to allow his administration to focus on London’s priorities rather than subsidise poorer regions elsewhere. But a high proportion of the UK’s tax revenue is generated in London and the South East, reflecting the higher salaries and corporate profits earned there. Without significant redistribution, the imbalances between England’s richest and poorest regions will only widen.

The concept of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will not become reality without massive investment, in infrastructure, education and training and support for new businesses.

So who will make the case for public investment for Yorkshire, as EU funding dries up and London tries to hold on to taxes raised there? On July 18, leaders from West Yorkshire, Sheffield, Liverpool and the North-East joined with Greater Manchester’s interim mayor in requesting a meeting with the new Prime Minister to discuss ‘our role within the Brexit negotiations’, amid ‘concerns that we are being ignored’. But it’s easy for a southern-based Conservative government to ignore Labour local government leaders when their party’s voice in Parliament is so weak.

We need representatives of all parties, business and trade unions, churches, charities and others to argue the case for institutionalised representation, alongside the devolved administrations, in negotiations that will reshape the United Kingdom as well as the UK’s relationship with the European continent.

Without that, as the Northern city leaders put it in their letter to Theresa May, the north of England will be ‘caught between an economically and politically powerful London and an increasingly politically important Scotland’.

William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire) is a Liberal Democrat peer. He negotiated with the Conservatives, as a Lords Minister, on a number of European issues within the coalition Government between 2010 and 2015.