Andrew Carter interview: Yorkshire does not need a mayor, high-speed rail or Channel 4

Yorkshire does not need high-speed trains across the Pennines, a region-wide mayor, or Channel 4, according to the boss of the independent Centre for Cities think-tank, Andrew Carter. Arj Singh reports.

Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter has joined calls for Yorkshire to present an economic case for region-wide devolution. Pic credit Paul Swinney

David Cameron’s infamous joke about people from Yorkshire “hating each other” sparked mini-outrage in 2015, but in the intervening years often rang true as councils bickered over the shape of the region’s political and economic future.

This year it changed. Yorkshire finally presented a near-united front, with 18 out of 20 local authorities backing a region-wide mayor with powers and money devolved from Westminster.

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And when Dan Jarvis was elected as Sheffield City Region mayor last week promising that it was only the beginning of the “devolution story”, hopes were raised that a deal to create a “One Yorkshire” powerhouse region was a step closer.

But just a week into the job he has had some stark reminders of the daunting task ahead.

Andrew Carter, chief executive of the independent Centre for Cities think-tank, says a pan-Yorkshire deal simply does not make economic sense.

He echoes concerns raised by Northern Powerhouse architect Lord Jim O’Neill, who has called on the region to put away the “chest-beating slogans” and make an economic case for a Yorkshire mayor to rival those in Manchester or Liverpool.

Sitting in his rather trendy office in the shadow of London’s Shard skyscraper, Mr Carter agrees: “My worry is that people just think ‘Yorkshire’s big, that’s good’.

“Well, kind of, but there’s more to scale than just simply being big.

“People think well London’s big, we need to be big.

“But just simply saying ‘there are lots of people that live in Yorkshire, it’s a big economy’, that tells us very little about what we might do to improve it.”

It would be tempting to see Mr Carter as another remote member of the capital’s metropolitan elite, unable to understand Yorkshire, and fearful of the prospect of it being given such wide-ranging powers.

But with more than 20 years of experience working on urban economic issues, and a Swansea accent which belies any suggestion of another London bubble policy-wonk, it would be wrong to simply ignore him.

Having chaired the first hustings for the Sheffield City Region mayoral election, he has seen the issues up close and is clear about that Mr Jarvis must now focus on getting South Yorkshire’s councils to agree on powers for the county, before turning to the One Yorkshire project he supports.

“The worry would be that everything is in a holding pattern and nothing happens because the anticipation of a Yorkshire deal is always on the horizon.

“It may always be on the horizon rather than actually coming any nearer, and therefore all of that slows everything up and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The people and the places of South Yorkshire can’t wait and shouldn’t wait for something that may or may not happen.”

Mr Carter recognises the international strength of Yorkshire’s brand, with the “overwhelming and amazing” success of events like the Tour de Yorkshire.

But the problem is each county is self contained, he claims.

Reeling off statistics, Mr Carter points out that 90 per cent of people in West Yorkshire live and work within the county.

It is a similar figure for Hull and the Humber, and 85 per cent in South Yorkshire.

This backs the case for city regions, he says, rather than bridging the divides.

Even if there were a Yorkshire mayor, they would immediately have to delegate power to more local officials, he adds.

Put to him that such an approach could be the best of both worlds, harnessing Yorkshire’s pulling power while ensuring all its regions are represented, Mr Carter says: “It’s very difficult to imagine a Yorkshire mayor making investments into North Yorkshire and making the argument that it somehow benefits South Yorkshire.

“So you are adding a degree of political conflict and uncertainty which slows things down.”

And he makes the bold suggestion that some of One Yorkshire’s supporters may only be backing it to stifle a move to city regions.

“I’m never clear as to whether some are not so much in favour of a Yorkshire deal, they are just not in favour of anything else.

“There are clearly people who are against devolution and so they will take positions that will stymie, will slow down, ultimately stop the devolution agenda.”

Mr Carter is fearless in taking on Yorskhire political shibboleths.

That is undoubted when he rejects calls for a high-speed rail link across the Pennines.

He says reliability and frequency on existing lines are more important “because the speeds are what they are”.

For those who believe the North-South HS2 project should be scrapped in favour of a fast route connecting Yorkshire, Manchester and Merseyside, that will be difficult to swallow.

But such is his diagnosis of the frustrated northern traveller: “My sense of the common complaints is that they are about frequency and reliability.

“So going from two trains an hour to five an hour and not having them break down or be delayed would make a difference.

“Whether it stops three times or four times between them, I think that’s more than doable.”

Mr Carter also rejects the suggestion that a high-speed line could turn the North into a giant conurbation.

“Why do we think people would live in Manchester and work in Leeds?

“Commuting, however lovely it is, however quick it is, is a cost.

“If you’re working in Leeds I’m pretty confident that most of the housing and quality of life preferences for someone working in Leeds could be satisfied in the Leeds city region.”

“There’s no need to live in Manchester,” he adds in one comment that will unite many in Yorkshire.