Stewart Arnold: Theresa May, it’s time for London to start listening to Yorkshire

Theresa May is still to visit Yorkshire since becoming Prime Minister six months ago.
Theresa May is still to visit Yorkshire since becoming Prime Minister six months ago.
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WHEN I went to visit my friend Matti in Helsinki in the summer of 1978, his wife was about to give birth, so the two of us went to the local post office to collect their ‘baby box’.

I learned that all new parents in Finland are given a box by the state. It is like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys in a container that can even be used as a cot. Essentially, it is designed to give all children in that country an equal start in life no matter what their background.

Fast forward nearly 40 years and the Scottish government has just introduced the very same concept. At the beginning of the year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was giving out a Scottish variation of the box to new parents north of the border.

It made me think that whatever your view on baby boxes (and I personally think they are a great idea), the fact that Scotland has the facility to address what it considers to be ways of improving health and supporting parents in its own community is hugely positive. And that should be equally true in Yorkshire.

The ability to respond to the different priorities in this region has always been one of the main reasons for my support for devolution to Yorkshire.

Devolution should not be merely about decentralising some elements of economic management in the hope of creating jobs, but also about people deciding for themselves the priorities they value in their communities.

So it should be about – amongst other things – raising educational attainment, investing in transport infrastructure, linking environment and energy and recommending health care solutions, so that if, for example, the people of Yorkshire want baby boxes, then that should be a decision for them.

The Scottish government has also had an opportunity to consider what is best for their community when it comes to Brexit and published a report to that effect just before Christmas.

Yorkshire should be envious because this region, unlike Scotland, has neither the opportunity to develop its own plan (not having any meaningful devolved governance) and nor does it get to sit at the top 
table in Downing Street putting across its view to the Prime Minister.

Not only are we behind when it come to the devolved nations such as Scotland, we are also behind London whose Mayor has already argued for a special dispensation for the financial services industry in the City of London.

This lack of a voice has implications for Yorkshire’s important manufacturing base, its agriculture and even its fishing industry. That is aside from the universities too.

We need to know the Government’s plans for Yorkshire. Is manufacturing industry going to get the same deal as Nissan in Sunderland? Are Yorkshire farmers getting the full and complete subsidies at the moment paid through the Common Agricultural Policy? Will universities in Yorkshire be able to participate in the EU-wide research programmes and send students and staff on the Erasmus scheme?

Not only does Yorkshire not have a voice at the top table, but there also seems to be a reluctance by the Government to engage with us here in the county. It is now exactly six months since Theresa May assumed office and she has still to visit Yorkshire.

This is poor. Someone remarked that having a Prime Minister who never visits Yorkshire is like being governed by an absentee landlord who doesn’t know or doesn’t care what’s happening to their property, refuses to respond to requests for repair and neglects essential maintenance whilst taking out as much money as possible from the assets.

By the end of his term of office, George Osborne’s photo ops around the North in a hard hat and a high-vis jacket became something of a parody, but nevertheless it showed he took an interest. Over the past six months, by comparison, Yorkshire has been at best ignored and, at worst, treated with contempt by Downing Street. Frankly, we should expect more of the Prime Minister.

The case for the people of the whole of Yorkshire to have more say over their own affairs is slowly being won if recent reports are to be believed. The key now is to make that devolution as meaningful as possible and to bring the people along with the whole proposal, indeed to get them to help
frame what powers and responsibilities we should have here in Yorkshire.

We can only do that, however, if London is willing to connect and to listen. So I urge the Prime Minister to make it a priority in the next six months of her term of office to come to Yorkshire and engage with people from right across the county and hear what we have to say.

Yorkshire faces a crucial time ahead, but at the moment we have no powers to forge our own future and a Prime Minister who appears uninterested. This has to change.

Stewart Arnold is leader of the Yorkshire Party.