YORKSHIRE has every reason to bemoan the indifference shown by successive governments towards this region – the untapped potential here is immense and truly warrants a new era of infrastructure investment.
Yet, on a landmark day for devolution that will see Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis officially begin work as Sheffield City Region’s first metro mayor, and seek to unite Yorkshire, political and business leaders must appreciate how the rest of the country perceives this region.
Self-pity only goes so far. This much became clear as national broadcast media – including esteemed political veterans like Sky News anchor Adam Boulton – struggled to explain the significance, subtleties and subtext of Mr Jarvis’s election and his personal commitment to county-wide devolution.
A well-respected industrialist saw it – and picked up the phone. “So David Cameron was right,” they ventured. “What do you mean?” I replied. “When he said Yorkshire can’t agree with itself, I know what he means.” “Yes, but we’re making progress,” I said lamely. “Are you?” they replied.
This was a reference to the then Prime Minister’s unguarded comments in 2015 when, on a visit to Leeds, he was caught on microphone saying: “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else – we didn’t realise they hated each other so much.” It’s the first misperception that needs to change.
The next weekend call came from a former Parliamentary researcher captivated by ITV4’s coverage of the Tour de Yorkshire – and the dynamism of the tourism industry here.
“You’ve got Sir Gary Verity. You’re good at organising bike races – so why not anything else?” they asked. “Yes, but there’s more to Yorkshire than cycling,” I replied before highlighting the breadth of the economy and how Yorkshire is, in fact, “a county of opportunity”. It’s the second misperception that needs to change.
Finally, a longstanding acquaintance got in touch to congratulate this newspaper on its latest exposé of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling – and his disingenuous promises on rail electrification during last year’s election.
“But you don’t need high speed rail in the North,” they bemoaned. “No, we shouldn’t have to put up with 50mph trains across the Pennines while London gets a second Crossrail line,” I said. “That bad?” they replied. “Yes,” I told them unequivocally. It’s the third misperception that needs to change.
I don’t recount these conversations to cause trouble for political, business, civic and religious leaders. Thanks to them, 18 out of 20 councils now back the One Yorkshire devolution model and Mr Jarvis’s landslide win empowers him to try to persuade Sheffield and Rotherham’s leaders to come to the party.
Quite the opposite. I do so because this region’s devolution differences – a legacy of a diverse economy that includes heavy industry, manufacturing, the financial and legal sectors, green energy, farming and tourism – do offer a false impression.
To paraphrase the murdered MP Jo Cox, more unites and divides Yorkshire when it comes to advancing the devolution debate, turbo-charging the economy and ensuring the North has a transport policy that works for all, particularly young people, and responds to a desire for greater social mobility.
This is why Mr Jarvis’s first days in office matter as he speaks to the leaders of Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster councils before setting up meetings with Ministers. He’s in the driving seat. In the first round, he received three times as many votes as his closest rival – a mandate not enjoyed by any other metro mayor.
He also made no secret to Labour during the selection process, or the public, of his approach to One Yorkshire. He will remain as the much-respected MP for Barnsley Central and won’t draw a mayoral salary because he hopes his new role will be redundant by 2020.
Yet, in changing the dial on the devolution narrative, he should invoke the spirit of President John F Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
If the rest of Britain can see that the area is serious about devolution, and replicating the unity of the Tour de Yorkshire over its future political leadership, it will make it harder for the Government to resist a proposal driven by the people. Much rests with James Brokenshire, the newly-appointed Communities Secretary, being more open-minded than others following his stint in Northern Ireland.
It won’t be easy and Mr Jarvis, a former paratrooper and centrist politician who has overcome many challenges, acknowledged this during his acceptance speech.
It’s a task, however, that will be made easier if this region is relentless in highlighting the opportunities – and the economic benefits for the rest of the country – of devolution by the end of the decade. For, if perceptions can be changed, the Government, and others, will have to see this county in a positive new light and understand the importance of One Yorkshire – and the significance of Dan Jarvis’s election.