Minister: Yorkshire's devolution deals need to stand test of time

Lord Jim O'Neill
Lord Jim O'Neill
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TREASURY Minister Lord O'Neill has ruled out imposing devolution deals on Yorkshire despite suggesting the region is within weeks of missing out on the latest round.

Lord O'Neill, a key figure in the devolution discussions with Yorkshire councils, argued dictating deals from Whitehall would leave them vulnerable to falling apart in the future as Governments change.

The current Government has struck a series of agreements with areas across the North - including South Yorkshire - that will see them take more control over their own affairs in areas such as transport, planning and skills, in return for new metro-mayors due to be elected in May 2017.

Devolution deals are seen as a key part of the Government's 'northern powerhouse' plan to strengthen the North's economy but West, North and East Yorkshire have failed to reach agreements amid ongoing rows over which parts of the region should partner together.

Lord O'Neill said: "I am patient because obviously for the broader devolution aspects of that part of the northern powerhouse, obviously it's not going to be complete without the places in Yorkshire that haven't had deals yet. Whatever frustrations everybody has I think one's got to try to be as patient as you can for getting the right deal that makes everybody happy.

"In terms of the first round of mayoral elections there's going to be a technical point where it is too late for that and that's coming up."

He added: "There's a lot of frustrations with it, I sometimes joke I'm developing a Yorkshire accent, but I think we have to be patient."

Speaking at the UK Northern Powerhouse conference, Lord O'Neill said he was challenging council leaders across the North to "get out of your comfort zone" and expressed frustration at their resistance to the idea of devolved powers being wielded by elected mayors.

"If you want to have a lot of responsibility why should you be questioning whether there's an elected mayor or not. Do you think you're going to be given something for free?" he said.

The former Goldman Sachs banker was a long time champion of giving more power to the North over its own economic affairs before was invited to join the Government as a Treasury Minister and Peer last year.

He said the Government's resistance to imposing agreements on areas such as Yorkshire was in part down to previous efforts being "little hobbies of whoever was in Government".

"If it comes from the bottoms up, and the depth of it is coming from the bottom up, no incoming Government is going to try and stop it if it has momentum."

The Government's 'northern powerhouse' plan has been criticised for focusing heavily on the economic potential of joining up Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool.

Lord O'Neill admitted that area's success was "crucial" to the success of the northern powerhouse plan but the aim was for all parts of the North to benefit and there was an argument that should mean extra support for districts on the edges.

The Tory peer also held out the prospect of devolution deals for rural areas and suggested one could be struck with Cumbria in the coming weeks.

As part of the northern powerhouse plan, Lord O'Neill revealed the Government is considering ways to encourage talented young people to stay in the North rather than migrating to London.

He also stressed that moves such as devolution and investment in transport would not kickstart the economy of the North if children did leave school with better qualifications and skills.

"We need to do something to improve the outcomes and the ambition and aspiration of young people in the North, especially through their secondary education and encouraging more of them to go to universities."