BREXIT is of course the biggest task that Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will face once they walk through the door of 10 Downing Street. Their historical legacy will hinge upon their ability – or lack of – to unite the country and deliver an orderly Brexit.
But unlike the previous administration, the new Prime Minister must not allow Brexit to overshadow the essential work that needs to be done closer to home – social care, housing, transport, education all need urgent attention, but have been ignored for the past three years.
At the same time that the Government turned its attention away from these important domestic issues it also turned away from the potential answers to many of them – devolution.
Despite warm words from Government, the pace of transferring powers from Westminster has slowed. What could have been an opportunity to give leaders in Yorkshire the powers and resources to drive domestic policy while Westminster dealt with Brexit was instead squandered.
This distraction has not gone unnoticed; the recent Power Up The North campaign is a great example of places across the country reminding Westminster that the rest of the country still exists and are fed up with having to wait for Parliament to get its act together.
For the new Prime Minister, Yorkshire is a microcosm of the challenges he will face in trying to ensure that Brexit doesn’t harm prosperity. Whilst most of the images of the county highlight its rural nature, from an economic perspective Yorkshire is an inherently urban place, with 73 per cent of people and jobs based in its largest urban areas. If the next Prime Minister hopes to govern in his party’s One Nation tradition, then he must have a programme that improves the performance of Yorkshire’s cities – which in turn will be good for the rest of the county.
The first thing that Theresa May’s successor must do for Yorkshire’s cities is address the fragile nature of local government funding. With three of the top five most cut British cities located in Yorkshire – Wakefield, Doncaster and Barnsley – the county has been hit hard by a decade of austerity.
Both of the final candidates for Prime Minister have made pledges to end austerity. Great – but if it is really at an end then this must extend to giving councils the resources they need to effectively provide the services and local economic growth that their residents rely on.
The next Prime Minister must also address the increasing burden that paying for social care now exerts on many urban councils in Yorkshire. As well as experiencing the largest fall of any council budget in the last decade, Barnsley now spends the largest share of its funding on social care in the country. Without significant reform Barnsley, and many other cities across Yorkshire and the rest of the country, will not be able to continue to meet their social care responsibilities.
Both candidates have made some welcome noises about devolution; Jeremy Hunt recently confirmed his support for more powers for local authorities, and Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London give us some clues about his approach. He was a vocal supporter of the need for greater fiscal devolution to councils to help them manage their finances. And both candidates have implied that devolution policy under their premierships would be city-focused, which makes it unlikely that either will look again at this Government’s decision to reject the One Yorkshire devolution proposals.
As much as I would like to, I cannot get through a discussion about priorities for the next Prime Minister without mentioning Brexit. Over half of Yorkshire’s cities’ exports are sold to the EU and York, Wakefield and Barnsley would be big losers should the next Prime Minister fail to secure a good deal. Talk of no deal should worry Yorkshire.
To safeguard the £8bn of exports that Yorkshire’s cities sell to the EU, the next Prime Minister should be serious about delivering a Withdrawal Agreement and future trade deal that minimises tariffs and other barriers to trade.
For observers of urban politics and policy, this election is a particularly interesting one. The current front-runner for Number 10 is the former Mayor of London. Should he win the leadership battle he will become the first Prime Minister in British history who was previously a directly-elected mayor – potentially setting a precedent for future aspiring prime ministers.
What this would mean for cities across the country remains to be seen, but Yorkshire MPs of all parties should step up pressure on the next Prime Minister to ensure that addressing the domestic issues that affect people’s everyday lives are not ignored by the next Government in the way they have been by Theresa May’s administration.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of the Centre for Cities think-tank.