One of the chief architects of the Northern Powerhouse has said the prospect of a Yorkshire-wide mayor needs to be abandoned if progress is to be made on securing devolved Government to the region.
Lord O’Neill, a former Treasury minister and Goldman Sachs economist who now serves on the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said that continued speculation regarding shifting away from city region deals towards a pan-regional approach were proving counterproductive to securing terms for a devolution settlement and would have little support from Government.
In the second half of an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Lord O’Neill hailed the example of former John Lewis boss turned Conservative politician Andy Street and said a figurehead of this nature was required to drive through a deal in Yorkshire.
A tentative deal for the Sheffield City Region still remains on the table with mayoral elections still scheduled for next year.
However a deal for the rest of Yorkshire has yet to be reached.
He said: “The Tory Party manifesto did not have the phrase Northern Powerhouse mentioned once.
“They are going to continue to support mayors for urban areas but not rural areas.
“The idea of a Yorkshire-wide mayor does not make economic sense and it doesn’t make practical sense either.”
Lord O’Neill said he had seen first hand how the pan-Yorkshire approach was proving a distraction from getting a settlement for the rest of Yorkshire.
“I know from my time in discussions with these people they have easily backed off because they have got sucked into the idea of this idea of a Yorkshire mayor but it is just not practical and it is not going to ever happen.”
“If it would not have been for Andy personally there would never have been a West Midlands combined authority and certainly the case for a mayoral position would not have happened.”Lord Jim O’Neill
Lord O’Neill went on to say that the plans for a Yorkshire-wide mayor failed to answer basic questions such as where the mayor would be located and how would they be able to work with combined authorities.
He said people were attracted to the pan-Yorkshire approach for emotive reasons rather than practical ones and that individual city deals would have little bearing on the brand and pride that the region has in itself as a collective.
“There is a brand of Yorkshire that is really important but people should not confuse that,” he said.
“It is not like having a Leeds city region mayor would destroy the Yorkshire brand, that’s just crazy.”
However Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk & Malton, said he had objected to the Leeds City Region deal because it would have “ripped the heart out of rural North Yorkshire.
He said: “My colleagues and I met with West Yorkshire leaders many times to try and find a solution that worked for every part of the region and proposed a number of different solutions, all to no avail. I am very keen to continue this dialogue and see how we can move forward and find a deal that meets everyone’s needs.”
Lord O’Neill said that the benefit to the economy that empowered city regions would bring would raise standards across the board.
When asked what could be done to reverse the lengthy delays to plans for devolution in Yorkshire Lord O’Neill said the answer lay in leadership and pointed to the example how the West Midlands area was able to come together despite broadly comparable geographical and political incompatibilities.
“I take my hat off to Andy Street,” he said.
“If it would not have been for Andy personally there would never have been a West Midlands combined authority and certainly the case for a mayoral position would not have happened.
“Not only did he do all of that but then he gave up his position of chief executive of what is generally regarded as a top British company to risk becoming the mayor.
“So my answer is where are the Andy Streets in this part of the world?
“A lot of West Midlands councils had at least as many of the issues.
“It was complex there but they dealt with and are moving forward.
“So where are the people who are prepared to take themselves into a different position, take some risk and are prepared to really step forward more strongly and say ‘this is why this should happen and this is how we are going to drive it.’?
Following the wide-ranging Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review earlier this year, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has identified four key areas for growth; advanced manufacturing, energy, health innovation and digital.
To identify what will make the biggest difference to the prospects of the North it has sent a survey to business leaders and it is holding workshops in Leeds and Sheffield over the coming weeks, details of which can be found at www.northernpowerhouse-partnership.com.
The next event is in Sheffield on June 26.