DEVOLUTION – taking money and the power to spend it away from the centre in London and giving it to the regions of England – is a sound policy that could boost economic growth and lessen inequality between north and south.
But in Yorkshire the plans have turned into a confusing mess and there’s now an urgent need for Government Ministers and regional leaders to sit down together to sort it out.
The Northern Powerhouse idea was the brainchild of George Osborne, then Chancellor and MP for Tatton in Cheshire. He decided that local authorities should join together in regional groupings under an elected representative with executive powers – so called Metro Mayors. They would be given more money and powers over economic development, skills, transport and in some cases some health spending.
It is worth noting that Osborne pressed ahead with this idea despite the fact that in 2004 the then Labour government had been forced to abandon plans for elected regional assemblies in the face of hostility from the public. Furthermore, cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford had explicitly rejected the idea of elected mayors in referenda in 2012.
But with Osborne’s backing the scheme went ahead and seven regions signed up to devolution deals, including Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, the Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Sheffield. Six of these held mayoral elections last May.
The Sheffield City Region, as it was called, was a bit of an odd construct. It included the four South Yorkshire authorities – Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield – and five authorities from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. On one level this made sense as many people commute to the region’s biggest city. But it also ignored traditional loyalties and regional rivalries.
Sure enough the Sheffield plan ran into difficulties almost from the start. Derbyshire County Council, sore at what was seen as a land grab by Sheffield, shoved a stick through the spokes of the deal, eventually winning a legal battle by arguing the people of Chesterfield had not been properly consulted on the plans.
The mayoral elections planned for last May were postponed and Chesterfield and Bassetlaw dropped out of the deal.
Meanwhile, developments were afoot elsewhere in the county. West Yorkshire had been left out of the devolution deals – an odd omission – and the more rural areas of the county also feared being left behind. Calls began to be voiced for an alternative deal – one that would encompass the whole of the county, now known as the One Yorkshire option.
The attractions of this are clear. From the coast to the Dales, from the big cities to the rural hamlets, from Airton to Wetwang, people have an affinity and loyalty to this county that is probably unrivalled anywhere in England.
And Yorkshire has a population on a par with Scotland’s and a GDP bigger than many EU member nations.
In terms of branding, the word Yorkshire is instantly recognisable with overwhelmingly positive connotations. Imagine the prestige and sheer political and economic clout the “Mayor of Yorkshire” would command.
Significantly, the One Yorkshire plan began to garner support across the political spectrum, including the Barnsley Labour MP Dan Jarvis. Then last month, in what could prove to be the fatal blow to the Sheffield City Region idea, voters in Barnsley and Doncaster were asked in mini referenda what deal they preferred. Overwhelmingly, with about 85 per cent of the vote, they backed the One Yorkshire plan. One Yorkshire is also backed by the TUC, the CBI, the FSB, the majority of local authorities and even the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.
Despite this strength of feeling, the Government is unmoved. It says the deal with Sheffield cannot be unpicked and the mayoral election must go ahead. This ignores the realities on the ground.
Now leaders in Barnsley and Doncaster have suggested a compromise. They have written to the Government suggesting that a Sheffield City Region mayor be appointed, rather than elected, as an interim measure. There would then be a county-wide One Yorkshire deal negotiated, with a mayoral election probably in 2020.
How to explain Government obstinacy on this? Perhaps the real fear in London is not that a One Yorkshire deal would fail, but that it would succeed – and that Yorkshire would create a true Northern Powerhouse that could permanently tip the balance of power away from the South East?