Jayne Dowle: Government’s divide and conquer tactics with One Yorkshire devolution snub

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire leave last week's Cabinet shortly before the latter rebuffed the One Yorkshire devolution deal.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire leave last week's Cabinet shortly before the latter rebuffed the One Yorkshire devolution deal.
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I’LL tell you one thing about people from Yorkshire. If there’s a tough thing to say, we’ll look you in the eye and say it. Not so Communities Secretary James Brokenshire who delivered the Government’s rejection of the One Yorkshire devolution bid by a letter emailed to council leaders – and a press release.

Press release? I’m speaking both as a journalist and a proud Yorkshirewoman here, and I recognise this as a huge insult. I can see exactly why he did it. And that makes it even worse. This perfunctory method of delivering information is the easiest and quickest way to quell argument and silence debate.

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.

What’s more, One Yorkshire campaign leaders were not even given any advance warning. How disrespectful is that? And coldly calculating on the part of the Government, which gave them no time to consider a timely response.

Above all, that the fate of more than five million people living and working in the largest region in the UK did not even merit a public airing in the House of Commons beggars belief.

I’m assuming that Brokenshire thinks that the matter will quietly disappear beneath the waves in all the tumult over Brexit until he’s eventually turfed out of office and it becomes someone else’s problem. In this, the Southend-born minister underestimates the strength of feeling we have here in Yorkshire.

How can it be that Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley are already all using devolved powers handed down from Government to tackle issues of regeneration, health and economic growth whilst Yorkshire looks on in frustration?

Well, admittedly, the history of the One Yorkshire campaign is long and fraught, with endemic disagreements between local authority leaders, MPs and ministers. I think that anyone familiar with the rich tapestry that is Yorkshire would not expect anything else, to be honest.

Fundamentally though, Mr Brokenshire maintains that those locations already benefiting from devolved powers can be clearly regarded as “functional economic areas” – a criteria which Yorkshire, with its diversity of rural, urban and coastal communities, struggles to fulfil.

If he really did meet the terms of his job description, the Minister would work with local leaders to develop a strategy which actually respected the wealth of potential from all our industries, from steel-making and finance to fishing and farming, instead of dismissing the possibility of pulling together out of hand.

How daft, as we might say, to ignore the fact that One Yorkshire could potentially contribute £30bn a year to the economy. Just look at the success of our regional tourist industry spearheaded by Welcome to Yorkshire. Consider the power of our leading universities and teaching hospitals and the strength and flexibility of new regional industries, such as logistics and factories building much-needed modular homes.

It should also be pointed out that our shocking lack of connectivity as regards public transport and broadband speeds does not exactly help on the functional side. One Yorkshire would strengthen such bonds between city, town and rural communities.

A united Yorkshire is a stronger Yorkshire and that can only be a good thing for the country overall. Instead, this high-handed approach from Westminster will only set local leader further against local leader, causing even more friction and factions to form.

Rather than attempting to engender a deal which puts the accent on unity, Brokenshire’s letter points to the alternative. I’m no expert in battle tactics, but I’d say that this is what’s known as divide and conquer. Before this shock blow, the One Yorkshire campaign was gearing up with fresh impetus and the financial backing of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which describes itself as “non-charitable funder of political campaigns in Britain to promote democratic reform, constitutional change and civil liberties”.

Campaigners were planning a spring conference. I hope that this still goes ahead. All efforts must be made to keep the issue of One Yorkshire on the public agenda; too many people have lost track – and patience – with the idea.

If Brexit has taught us one thing, it’s that we live in an era where single-issue politics makes the most impact on the public. The campaign needs to get the message further out there and capture imaginations. But how?

Whilst our devolution status did not merit a Commons announcement, what is a matter of record is that this so-called ‘Communities Secretary’ has made only one official visit to Yorkshire since his appointment last year. Where are these communities he serves I wonder? Could he pinpoint their borders on a map? Does he understand them, or even accept that they exist as living, breathing entities?

Surely, his role is to work with us, not against us. I suggest he revisits his cowardly decision and comes up to see us. And then we can show him a thing or two about looking people in the eye.