I CAN’T remember the last time any of my friends and acquaintances who work in local government in Yorkshire began a new year with a sense of optimism.
Instead, they approach it with grim anticipation of yet more difficulties, the same old certainty of being lectured by po-faced Government ministers that they will have to stretch ever-dwindling funding even further.
The consequences are always the same too – cuts to services, the annual chipping-away at what councils are able to do, leaving residents angry, frustrated or worried. The people who work for local government in our region are no less angry and frustrated, and this made the optimism of a council officer I met in the North East over Christmas seem startling by comparison.
No demands for budget cuts are going to land on his desk during 2018. Quite the opposite. Money is pouring in, and he’s full of bounce and enthusiasm over the good it’s going to do.
For the first time in his 20-odd years as an economic development officer, he feels he’s been handed a real chance of making a difference for the better, of driving improvements instead of coping with crisis and decline.
That means creating jobs, helping new businesses get started and established ones expand. No wonder he’s cheerful.
The contrast between his outlook – and those of my friends here in Yorkshire who are already beginning number-crunching in advance of the cuts which are all but inevitable – is easily explained.
He happens to work in Hartlepool, which is part of the Tees Valley, with its own devolved powers and elected mayor.
That means that unlike here in Yorkshire, where the flow of Government funding reduces each year, there it’s increasing. Hundreds of millions of pounds have already been agreed, and more is on the way.
Had I been visiting family in Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham instead of the North East, and happened to bump into a council officer in any of those areas, their story would have been the same.
The disparity in fortunes between Yorkshire and the regions which long ago put aside petty factional rivalries and got on with sorting out devolution deals is bound to be at the heart of the debate that Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis leads in Westminster Hall later today.
It’s another step in his tireless campaign to get a deal that benefits the whole of Yorkshire, and let’s hope the Government listens this time, because it’s long overdue that it did.
The clamour to be given the same help that our neighbours to the north, the west and the south are receiving is deafening. A coalition of councils which want to press ahead with a single deal, an overwhelming vote by the people of Barnsley and Doncaster, and the intervention of so respected a figure as the Archbishop of York all demand that Yorkshire’s right to a level playing field against what amount to economic rivals is granted.
And yet the shenanigans over a stand-alone deal for Sheffield continue, all the while leaving the region as a whole falling behind the likes of Tees Valley.
But there’s more to it than just the money, central to the success of devolution though that is. What shone through in everything I heard from the Hartlepool official was the new-found sense of purpose, which in itself will give impetus to everything he does.
Devolution has been a game-changer for him, and by extension the area he serves. It knows its problems better than anyone in Whitehall, and the power to address them at a regional level also promotes an optimistic, can-do attitude that will go a long way towards solving them. The challenges an economic development officer faces in Hartlepool would produce nods of recognition from his counterparts here, for the problems that bedevil northern towns and cities run across county boundaries.
The decline of traditional industries, areas of deprivation and the urgent need to attract inward investment are common to all these areas.
The difference is that Tees Valley can tackle them with renewed energy and financial clout whilst we continue to struggle and compete for scraps of funding instead of being seated at the top table with the other devolved areas where the real money is handed out.
The need to convince the Government to give Yorkshire the deal it deserves has never been more pressing. Why should any town or city in our county trying to make a success of itself be at a disadvantage to Hartlepool, or anywhere else an hour or so’s drive away?
But it’s already happening. The year just past saw money flowing into the devolved areas whilst Yorkshire councils embarked with gritted teeth on yet more cost-cutting.
By this year’s end, the gulf in resources between us and our neighbours will have grown yet wider. We need not just the funding and the power to choose how best to spend it, but the optimism that goes with it too so this region’s lead can start shaping the county’s future with more confidence and certainty.