IS this what we want for our children? A North of England which finds itself “rich in assets, but poor in opportunity?” I certainly don’t want that for my own son and daughter, both of whom will leave school and face adulthood within the next five years.
I have no wish for them to look around Yorkshire and feel only frustration. I don’t want them to see horizon-expanding educational opportunities, challenging and creative jobs and chances to fulfil their potential only if they can break through that imaginary barrier somewhere south of the Tinsley viaduct.
Rather, I would like them to be able to choose between staying in the region where they have been brought up, or choosing to seek their fortune elsewhere. I don’t want them to feel – as I did more than 30 years ago – that the only way to make progress in the world was to go and live somewhere else.
I know I am not the only parent to suffer from this growing anxiety in Barnsley, a town which has suffered much more than its fair share of economic deprivation and dismissive treatment from central government over the years.
It’s an anxiety compounded further by the rising costs of university education and housing in other, more prosperous, parts of the country. Are we raising a generation who will be bankrupt before they even have chance to earn a penny?
That’s why this new report from the IPPR North think-tank could not have come at a more timely moment. If the Government does not devolve “real economic power” to our region, it warns the North of England will face catastrophic consequences, especially in a hard post-Brexit world.
It also coincides with the decision of local councillors in Barnsley and Doncaster to hold a “community poll” – a non-legally binding referendum – on plans for devolution in South Yorkshire.
People in both towns are being asked to choose between the proposed “One Yorkshire” deal, supported by the majority of councils in the region, or the Government-backed Sheffield City Region deal. The vote will take place next month either online or by post, with the result announced just before Christmas.
Under the terms of the Sheffield City Region deal, which was agreed in 2015, it’s understood that an elected mayor would have powers over transport budgets and strategic planning and access to £30m in public funding every year for the next three decades.
This is the only deal that the Government will support. Talk about high-handed. I know this is absolutely stereotypical Yorkshire bolshiness from me, but put simply, it’s not up to the people in Westminster to decide what’s good for the people in Yorkshire. It’s up to the people of Yorkshire to decide what’s good for us.
All power then to those who support the opposing “One Yorkshire” proposal. This was originally put forward in August when 17 of the 20 councils in Yorkshire, including Barnsley and Doncaster, argued that they wanted to pursue a county-wide deal instead. It makes total sense to anyone with even an inkling of how our region should work.
Sorry to bang on about Barnsley, but we’re a very good case in point. Our borough borders Sheffield, it’s true, but also Rotherham, Doncaster, Wakefield and to the west, Greater Manchester. It would be madness to align ourselves with only one or two of the above when opportunities for economic growth, employment, better transport links and cultural activities are so wide.
However, I can sense a lot of people in Barnsley already looking on in dismay. Another referendum? What’s it about this time? No doubt, this decision to hold a poll will be regarded in some quarters as confusing, time-consuming and costly.
It’s not my place to tell people what to do, and certainly not how to vote, but I will just say this. There is no point moaning about towns like Barnsley being lambasted and left to rot if we are not prepared to do something about it.
If we want major national and international companies to set up shop here, we have to look as if we are open for business. If we want excellent teachers to come to our schools and fill the vacancies which leave our children bereft of permanent teachers in key subjects such as maths and science, we have to make ourselves look like a town which takes itself seriously. And if we want the retail development we deserve, and stronger house prices and a better place to live all round, we have to get with the programme and take time to research what’s going on.
I don’t want a North of England that’s been left behind to be the legacy for my children, or for my children’s children. I want, first and foremost, a Yorkshire which offers every opportunity they might wish to seek.
However, this can only happen if enough people take a conscious decision to challenge the way our region is organised, funded and governed. And that’s just one of the reasons why I will vote “yes” to One Yorkshire next month.