UNTIL recently, the United Kingdom had the most centralised system of government of any of the large democracies.
In the US, the 50 states have substantial tax-raising powers; in Germany the regional governments run most public services – Bavaria is a semi- independent state; Australia and Canada are similar to the US, and the French departments, a creation of Napoleon, are being restructured to give them greater devolved powers.
But thanks to the centralising instincts of the post-war Labour government and then the determination of Margaret Thatcher to cut left-wing councils down to size, localism has been decimated in the UK.
The creation of devolved administration in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales and Northern Ireland, has changed all that. Scotland, particularly, is now exercising significant devolved powers. So what about England?
The new Conservative government, with George Osborne in the vanguard, is trying to reinvigorate localism, but there are some 400 local authorities – far too many to be trusted with any serious devolved responsibilities.
Mr Osborne has identified one combined group of local authorities – Greater Manchester – where the city’s Labour political leader, Sir Richard Leese, and the chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, have for many years shown a high level of competence in local administration.
The Chancellor plans to give Manchester substantial power to develop and deliver policies currently managed from Whitehall, including infrastructure, skills, housing, fundraising and health.
Leeds and Sheffield are seeking to match the Manchester proposition but they lack Manchester’s track record and are likely to be given less substantial powers. The rest of Yorkshire will find it even more difficult to convince Mr Osborne of its ability to manage extensive devolution if the local authorities and local enterprise partnerships choose to go their separate ways.
But a proposition for the whole of Yorkshire could earn high credibility in Whitehall. The county’s population of five million is similar to Scotland, Denmark and Ireland, and they retain a strong affinity with their county, whether it be cricket, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or their historic traditions.
The Yorkshire “brand” is recognised across the world by potential investors, customers and visitors. Together we can market our region to these three groups, encouraging them to invest here, to buy our products and to visit or even live here.
We can point to a diverse and balanced economy comprising financial services in Leeds, advanced manufacturing in Sheffield, energy around the Humber estuary and tourism in York and North Yorkshire.
Together we can set ourselves targets to raise our productivity, the most pressing economic issue.
Together we can raise substantial funds for investment, and develop innovative, relevant strategies to resolve local skills and housing shortages, and to modernise our regional infrastructure. At some point we can follow Manchester in developing integrated regional health services. Together we understand these issues and ways of dealing with them, better than any Whitehall Minister or civil servant could hope to do.
Together we can persuade people to come and work in Yorkshire because of the quality of life. Together we can raise the cultural offerings of the county.
The plan would be to create an elected Yorkshire leader who would be take over responsibility for funds intended to deliver a range of activities related to regional economic development, including job creation, infrastructure, housing, investment incentives and planning.
A network of four Combined Local Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships would be responsible for the delivery of these policies, tailored to local needs.
There are, of course, hurdles to overcome. Economic and political geography do not always converge. Sheffield has close links with North Nottingham and North Derbyshire because many people who work in the city choose to live in these areas.
More problematical is the Humber, where the estuary economy is a powerful one, but the people on the North Bank identify with Yorkshire whereas those on the South Bank are stoutly Lincolnshire. The new region could be called Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire.
Parochialism is a powerful inhibitor. The Government will subject all devolution propositions to tests of leadership and competence which will, in turn, lead to successful regional economic development. The Yorkshire proposition would surely attract high- calibre people.
Regionalism, whether it be in Scotland or Bavaria, can be a great motivator.Yorkshire can demonstrate competence and enterprise if there is a will among local politicians and business people to work together. It would be tragic if we allowed petty jealousies and rivalries to prevent us from seizing this exciting opportunity.
Lord Haskins of Skidby is the former head of Northern Foods and chairman of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership.