Now is the time to speed up devolution in Yorkshire – Andrew Carter

LAST December the Prime Minister promised to level up the ‘left behind’ cities and towns of the UK.

Yet less than a year on and it looks as though this promise is in danger falling by the wayside as the Government grapples with the ongoing health and economic effects of Covid-19.

This is sadly ironic as many of the places hit hardest economically by the pandemic are also the places that need levelling up the most. Bradford, for example, has seen one of the largest increases in unemployment since the beginning of the initial lockdown. And the share of people furloughed in Huddersfield since March is among the highest of any town or city in the UK.

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While the measures that the Government has taken will help save many jobs, it is increasingly clear that it does not have the capacity nor the knowledge to provide the tailored responses that places will need to rebuild their economies from the damage that Covid-19 has done.

How can Yorkshire devolution be best advanced?

In addition to the capacity and knowledge constraints, many people, including some senior politicians, have suggested that the Government’s inability to deliver the levelling up agenda is to do with the constraints of the Government’s Green Book – the economic appraisal framework it uses to guide investment decisions.

This is somewhat of a red herring. While the Green Book would benefit from some changes as we set out in our most recent research, fundamentally the problem that we face is an overly centralised Government that lacks the plan and the capacity for levelling up the places that most need support.

Additionally, the complicated structure of English local government, in which districts, counties, unitaries and combined authorities often cover the same place and often with competing interests, makes long-term strategic decision-making very difficult to achieve.

To address this, the Government’s delayed White Paper on English devolution should replace the 349 authorities in England with fewer, larger, better resourced and more powerful ones, all with a directly-elected leader with a clear mandate to level up their area.

Andrew Carter is chief executive for Centre for Cities.

It is important that the political boundaries of local government match the economic boundaries within which people actually live and work.

In Yorkshire, this would mean new unitary authorities covering York and North Yorkshire and Hull and East Riding, and additional powers and resources for the two existing combined urban authorities, West Yorkshire and Sheffield City Region, reflecting their important strategic economic role – both for Yorkshire and for the UK as a whole.

Embracing reform would empower local government in Yorkshire to develop coherent long-term plans for how housing, transport, skills and public services should be delivered in a way that improves the lives of people.

I appreciate that this would be a controversial move for some, particularly because of the historic importance attached to Yorkshire as a cultural entity.

Cities like Bradford are paying a heavy price for the Covid crisis.

However, the importance of the Yorkshire identity need not be undermined by reforming local government boundaries.

It is possible to celebrate civic identity while also designing systems of local government that are fit for the purpose meeting the needs of a diverse county – from Sheffield to Whitby.

But it would be unfair to reform local government, grant it more powers and more responsibility without giving them the fiscal tools that they need to succeed.

Centre for Cities estimates that it will cost at least an extra £100bn over the next decade to effectively level up the country.

Some of this should come from HM Treasury, but a reformed local government should also have more control over council tax, business rates and other charges in order to raise more money in their own areas to spend on projects that they know their residents need – anything from adult education programmes to work coaches to more affordable housing.

It would be easy to argue that now is not the right time to be pressing ahead with local government reform.

But, as recent events have shown us, while Central Government is having to deal with the effects of the pandemic, now is exactly the right time to be devolving responsibility and resources to cities and towns across the country.

If this does not happen, there is a very real possibility that we’ll miss out again on the opportunity to build a more prosperous country.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities.

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James Mitchinson