Ian Martin: Five million reasons we need an assembly

This month's metro mayor elections in many parts of the North have left me with mixed feelings of envy and determination.

Will Yorkshire ever achieve devolution?
Will Yorkshire ever achieve devolution?

Envy about the positive debate it has inspired around how to do things differently; envy about the soft power that leading candidates are already demonstrating; and envy about the additional powers that are already starting to be added.

But also determination – determination to ensure that my home in east Leeds can still benefit from devolved democracy.

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From the outside, a missing Leeds/West Yorkshire devolution deal sticks out like a sore thumb from the list of city regions.

How can such a populous area at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse not be part of all this?

Perhaps the answer is that it is also part of something bigger.

If Leeds missing out on city region devolution was to be worth anything, it must be for the bigger prize.

Devolution is by its nature top down, “they” have got the power so “they” are in the position to give it away or not.

Many argued that we should have taken any deal that the Government offered. But that didn’t happen.

We can rehearse that argument over and over but we’re not electing metro mayors in 2017. We’ve missed out on that one.

Prior to the announcement of the General Election last week, Northern Powerhouse Minister Andrew Percy had described only one “legal” devolution possibility – a directly elected mayor who would report to a single combined authority.

Despite Community Secretary Sajid Javid’s more open-minded intervention offering hope of an outcome by the end of 2017, we are now in a situation where we cannot be confident of what the next UK government’s approach to devolution will be.

It is time for regional democracy. It is time for us to build up our vision from right here. It is time to stand up where we are, look out positively and seize the opportunities to improve the lives of our neighbours through a new democracy that is big enough to make a real difference, but close enough to prioritise our needs. And as we no longer have the incentive to “take it whilst it’s on offer”, that vision should be different, better, bolder.

Many will argue we need to work broadly within the current government’s understanding of “devolution”. Some may prefer a Yorkshire-wide approach that still works with the Government’s preferred directly elected mayor/combined authority approach.

Some may still prefer to work with the Government’s functional economic area narrative and base devolution on “city regions” such as West Yorkshire but ensure that any directly elected mayor is properly held to account by an assembly that is elected by proportional representation.

But perhaps the bolder vision, the vision of a very different future for which missing out on this round of devolution “deals” may yet prove worthwhile, is that of a Yorkshire Assembly directly elected under PR by its five million residents, drawing from it a Yorkshire government with an ambition far beyond any metro mayor.

These developments may also work with IPPR North’s vision of each devolved body being represented in a Council of the North, scrutinised by a randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly.

But for any of that to happen, for our vision to become something that still convinced government to look our way, it needs more than local authority and business leaders on the case. It needs all of us.

Local leaders will only get past this moment with our support. Local leaders will only get past this moment if they actively value our engagement. We all need to get involved in this. Involved in region-building not just resistance, cynicism or scepticism. It is time for regional democracy.

Ian Martin is a primary school teacher based in East Leeds and a founder member of Same Skies - a group of volunteer campaigners in West Yorkshire positive about regional democracy.