No use pretending North Yorkshire's new devolution deal is perfect - Adam Hawksbee

As Yorkshire Day was marked on August 1, people in York and North Yorkshire had something else to celebrate.

The Government and local leaders in North Yorkshire and the City of York have finally struck a long-awaited £540 million deal that gives people living in the area more control over the issues that matter to them: transport, skills, housing and crime.

Under the terms of the deal, voters in the area will elect a single Mayor of York and North Yorkshire, responsible for improving public services and boosting economic growth.

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This will bring them in line with West and South Yorkshire, where mayors are delivering real improvements, including plans to bring local bus services under public control and new adult skills programmes to add hundreds of apprentices to the workforce. This is exactly the sort of progress the Government needs to show in its promises to level up the country.

North York Moors. Pic: Gary Longbottom.North York Moors. Pic: Gary Longbottom.
North York Moors. Pic: Gary Longbottom.

My research has shown that having a directly elected mayor has huge potential to boost the local economy. In the Tees Valley, Mayor Ben Houchen doubled the amount of foreign direct investment into the area from £5 billion to £10 billion in just three years. And over in the North West, the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region made history with the first joint mayoral trade delegation to Ireland earlier this year.

While the deal announced today will offer York and North Yorkshire many of the benefits that other devolved areas now have, it is likely to be very different in practice. This is the first devolution deal offered to a predominantly rural area so the issues the first mayor will grapple with will be different to those that matter to people in Manchester or Birmingham. Rural broadband and support for agriculture haven’t exactly been top of Andy Burnham’s list of priorities.

There will also be a very different political dynamic in York and North Yorkshire. Unlike the Labour strongholds of West and South Yorkshire, the City of York is a Liberal Democrat-Green administration, while North Yorkshire is pretty solidly Conservative. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out once a mayor is in post.

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And reforms like this are never without their controversy. Hull and East Riding are yet to agree to a devolution deal and political wrangling there means they aren’t likely to any time soon.

And some campaigners would have preferred the One Yorkshire model for devolution, following Yorkshire’s historic borders.

History and local identity matter and it is vital that we continue to celebrate the historic county through occasions like Yorkshire Day and through shared institutions such as Yorkshire County Cricket Club and even this newspaper.

We should not pretend that the devolution deal being offered to York and North Yorkshire is perfect. Despite the big numbers being press released, the first mayor will find themselves relatively financially constrained compared to mayors in other countries.

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The Government still maintains a tight fiscal leash on England’s local leaders, restricting their ability to transform their areas.

The next prime minister needs to fix this, to show their commitment to levelling up. Mayors need long-term funding and, crucially, the power to raise funds through local taxes and charges in their areas. This may sound revolutionary but in most other countries it’s normal.

In Germany, for example, 32.2 per cent of taxes are raised locally, compared to just 5.1 per cent in the UK.

And despite the expansion of mayors across Yorkshire and England more broadly over the last decade, their powers are still pretty feeble.

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Back in 2019 the Conservatives were elected on a mandate to “take back control.” Now it’s time to give back control, providing mayors with proper powers over technical education, local rail systems and net-zero infrastructure.

Critics of devolution are uncomfortable with giving more powers to politicians who, they argue, have little accountability. They have a point.

More power should be accompanied by more scrutiny. Onward has previously proposed giving MPs, councillors and local experts expanded powers to scrutinise mayoral performance.

And of course media outlets such as The Yorkshire Post play a vital role in speaking truth to power.

But while it can often be easy to criticise details, we should celebrate the deal announced today.

-Adam Hawksbee is Deputy Director and Head of Levelling Up at Onward think-tank.

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