Let voters decide our future before region pays price

Cllr Steve Houghton CBE, Leader of Barnsley Council,
Cllr Steve Houghton CBE, Leader of Barnsley Council,
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Have your say

THIS week Barnsley Council and Doncaster Council unanimously agreed to hold a community poll so local people can have their say on devolution.

It isn’t your average consultation. Instead, every resident on our electoral registers will receive a ballot paper on their doorstep in early December, in a comprehensive voting exercise.

Doncaster executive mayor Ros Jones

Doncaster executive mayor Ros Jones

Why?

Because when it comes to the prospect of wider Yorkshire devolution, we’ve heard a lot of voices. Indeed, readers of The Yorkshire Post will know that we are strong supporters of One Yorkshire devolution, along with the CBI, Institute of Directors, local and regional business figures, trade unions and very many of our MPs.

Yet the one group of people who have not had their say on wider Yorkshire devolution are our local residents. And they have the most important voice of all.

For our part, we are genuinely keen to hear from them. The key issue that we need to understand is: do our residents ultimately want to be part of Sheffield City Region devolution, or wider Yorkshire devolution?

We are clear in our belief that devolution will deliver significant benefits. It is why, when the Government was only pursuing ‘City Region’ devolution deals in 2015, Doncaster and Barnsley supported the Sheffield City Region proposal. At the time it was the only potential option on the table, but that is no longer the case.

A new option is now feasible and our view is that Yorkshire is better together. We believe that a wider Yorkshire devolution agreement would provide the best devolution geography, particularly as we leave the European Union in an increasingly uncertain fashion.

That issue was brought into even sharper focus following the ‘State of the North’ report produced by leading think-tank IPPR North, and published on the same day that our respective councils considered the community poll.

It shows that Brexit will have nearly twice the impact on the North’s economy by 2030 as it will on London. Yet, over the same time period, the North will need 2.7m more working-age people to support its ageing population. It states that areas which are already struggling or stagnated will be hardest hit, and that 40 per cent of Northern jobs are in occupations likely to be at high risk of being done by robots or other forms of automation in the future.

We all know that successive governments have failed to invest sufficiently in the North’s strengths. As the report author puts it: “Instead they have left this once-thriving region with creaking infrastructure and people, young and old, without the chance to thrive in a rapidly changing world.”

It’s time to be honest. This is not great news and the outlook is potentially very worrying unless we take action. There is no point in closing our eyes and covering our ears. We can still be optimistic, but need to be bold.

So, if we really are to rebalance the UK economy and make Brexit a success, as the Government says it intends to do, then we need to develop regions on a size and scale that can compete with London, and on an international stage. That is vital if we are to shift the balance of power in this country and truly fulfil the potential of our regions. Tinkering around the edges is no longer good enough.

We believe that Yorkshire can compete on an international stage, much more effectively than the shrinking Sheffield City Region geography.

Yorkshire devolution would be the largest devolution agreement in England and have the power to capitalise on our size, identity, assets and internationally renowned brand.

It would also give us a powerful voice and a place at the negotiating table with Government, alongside areas such as London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. The urgent need for that level of influence should not be underestimated, particularly when you look at the chronic lack of investment in Yorkshire and the North, for example on transport.

Of course Yorkshire devolution is also relevant to Doncaster and Barnsley because, whilst we may be in South Yorkshire, we also face north.

In fact we have direct borders with North, West and East Yorkshire, and these links are very important to our economies. They will become even more vital in the coming years and, in return, we have much to offer people and businesses from across the Yorkshire ridings.

As local leaders we are not here to sit on the fence, so that is what we will be saying to our residents. However, the ball is in their court, because we aren’t asking people for their views in order to ignore them.

We’ve already heard from business, trade unions and politicians on the issue of devolution.

Now we need to hear from local people.

Sir Steve Houghton is leader of Barnsey Council and Ros Jones is the Mayor of Doncaster.