Here’s why the time has come for devolution and a Yorkshire Parliament – Natalie Bennett

Should Yorkshire have its own Citizens' Assembly?
Should Yorkshire have its own Citizens' Assembly?
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AS part of The Yorkshire Post series – What the new Prime Minister should do for Yorkshire – Natalie Bennett looks at devolution.

PARIS is a primate city on the same scale as London – about seven times as big as Marseilles – but regional governments and city governments have real power, control and resources in France.

Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett wants a Citizens Assembly for Yorkshire. Do you agree?

Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett wants a Citizens Assembly for Yorkshire. Do you agree?

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It means that the economic gaps – and the difference between investment in everything from transport to culture – between Paris and the rest are not nearly as great.

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“But what about devolution?” I hear as a cry drifting up faintly from far-distant London, pointing to Greater Manchester and the Sheffield City Region, as examples. “What about them indeed?” I respond.

Dan Jarvis is mayor of Sheffield City Region.

Dan Jarvis is mayor of Sheffield City Region.

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Transferring responsibility for decisions for local services such as health without the resources to provide them, as in Manchester, is just an abdication of responsibility, not a transfer of power.

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And as for Sheffield City Region, where the central city voted against an elected mayor only a few years before this regional one was imposed on them, well even the man elected to run it, Dan Jarvis, took the post with the explicit aim of seeing the structure abolished.

In both cases, the structure of the devolution was not a democratic decision. No great public debate, no citizens’ assembly, no referendum – just a backroom deal. It’s enough to give the word devolution a bad name, but it shouldn’t. For, as I travel around Yorkshire, what I find is a great hunger for genuine localism that allows communities to make decisions about the huge challenges we face.

Citizens assemblies are being proposed to plan how to face, and tackle, our climate emergency. There’s great determination to resist the depredations of fracking companies Westminster is encouraging on to our land. And calls for citywide trials of a new way of doing welfare, such as the backing in Sheffield for a universal basic income trial.

There’s an understanding – it is obvious really – that Yorkshire is an entity, an identity, a genuinely cohesive place, with a population very similar in size to that of Scotland (which has its own Parliament, and real powers over its own resources, even if it is yet to fully exercise them, and is rightfully demanding more).

That’s the drive behind the founding meeting of the Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament today. But many readers will no doubt be thinking, isn’t there already the One Yorkshire movement?

There is – but it is calling for a single elected mayor for Yorkshire. Exercises in devolution already under way help illustrate the problems with that. Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, launched a string of disastrous projects because the Assembly lacked the power to stop him.

Relying on one person, even if elected, is innately a bad idea – checks and balances, the chance to have different perspectives, ideas and inputs into government – produces better decisions.

And when you think about Yorkshire, it has an identity and unity, but it also has massive differences. Just as the London mayoral race each time is a contest between a relatively radical centre and a small-C conservative outer ring, so we’d see the old “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” weighted against parts of the north that have a very different political perspective.

One person can’t reasonably represent all of those, but an assembly, elected proportionately and fairly, could represent both the different geographical regions, but also all political perspectives.

Yes there are committed Conservatives in Sheffield – even if they’re sometimes shy about admitting it. At the moment, they’ve got no one short of Westminster to represent their interests.

To state that our current political system isn’t working is now but a commonplace. Fixing it means giving power back to the people – they’re demanding to take back control, and they’re right in that: we in Yorkshire have to take back control from Westminster (and then work with Brussels direct – hopefully from within the EU – to tackle our pressing problems).

That doesn’t mean handing over the Westminster power to one person. That’s more concentration, less control. It means having a local elected rep, someone you know, who lives in your community, who you can directly influence, wielding power for you. That means a Yorkshire Parliament.

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party. She lives in Sheffield.