DevoConnect's Gill Morris on why politics and geography got in the way of a 'One Yorkshire' devolution deal

It was seven years ago nearly to the day that George Osborne's 'northern powerhouse' speech in 2014 set out the then-Chancellor's plans for powerful metro mayors for big cities like Leeds and Manchester to help bridge the north-south divide.

Since then, despite warm words from successive governments, progress towards the aim of introducing strong local leaders across the North has inched along like one of the region's now mercifully obsolete Pacer trains.

In Yorkshire there are now two metro mayors in the form of Dan Jarvis and Tracy Brabin but the road to them achieving powers has been long and arduous. And in North Yorkshire and the Humber talks about handing over control to local leaders from Whitehall are still in their early stages.

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According to Gill Morris, chief executive officer of the devolution-focused public affairs agency DevoConnect, geography and politics are the two things that can get in the way of a good devolution like those eventually struck in South and West Yorkshire.

According to Gill Morris, chief executive officer of the devolution-focused public affairs agency DevoConnect, geography and politics are the two things that can get in the way of a good devolution like those eventually struck in South and West Yorkshire.

But now, at central Government level, she fears Ministers already facing a host of intractable issues like social care and climate change have placed the transferring of powers and budgets from Whitehall to the town hall in the category 'too difficult to solve'.

This theory would explain why a White Paper setting out the Government's devolution vision, having been promised last September, has now been shelved and will likely appear as part of its 'levelling up' legislation to be published alongside it spending review this Autumn.

DevoConnect, which this week published its own health devolution proposals, prides itself on being able to "inform, shape and influence the future policy debate".

"So what we do at DevoConnect is basically bang the drum and look at things from a devolved and decentralised lens" Ms Morris tells The Yorkshire Post from her home in Cumbria.

"We use the UK Parliament as far as possible to win cross party support wherever possible, and really join up that voice across the North or across the Midlands, and across devolution centres to say we can we do have a strong political voice.

"And I think we are unique in what we were doing. And the reason we do that is because you can see the shape of politics today, when we have an 80-seat majority, it's really important that people don't feel left behind and they do feel that they've got a voice.

"And moreover, that there are opportunities, real opportunities to remove regional disparities and some of those huge inequalities that we've seen during the pandemic, from housing, transport, and on education.

"We bring people together, really ramp up the volume for not just people of Yorkshire but across, hopefully England but passionate about devolution, because I really do think it's part of the solution."

Ms Morris, the daughter of Lord (Alf) Morris of Manchester, admits that devolution as a term may not mean much to most people.

But she says: "If you say to them, 'what we're talking about is how you work, live, rest and play talking about your children, your family, making sure that we can have a more regional approach, it means around growth and it means opportunity, and not being left behind', I think it begins to sound a bit more sexy and appealing to people.

"I think it's that sense of going back to that dreadful phrase of not being left behind, that it is actually your voice. [Greater Manchester metro mayor] Andy Burnham across the Pennines certainly uses that as his message and we've seen that almost every day through the pandemic, that there is a voice.

"I talked about banging the drum earlier, but it's that collaboration and convening and being able to have the power to do things differently.

"And if you get that collective power and that collaboration working across the parties, and across the geography, it's enormously, enormously powerful, when you have a government who can basically do what they like, and at the same time, have the biggest economic problem that we have seen in a more than a generation."

In areas like the Tees Valley, where Conservative mayor Ben Houchen has had some notable successes, she says locals no longer need persuading about the merits of creating an extra elected figure to lead a region.

And while regional identity is important, it's often not enough. A case in point is the failure to get a 'One Yorkshire' devolution deal creating a region-wide mayoral authority over the line, despite widespread support.

"What happened I think on One Yorkshire it was too big for government to give power to potentially a Labour elected mayor," Ms Morris says. "I think that was a real stumbling block plus the politics locally got in the way.

"I know that Yorkshire has got a hugely proud heritage and identity. But politically it doesn't necessarily gel. So I probably concur with the conversations I've had with Conservatives and others over the years, One Yorkshire probably was too big. It's a fascinating geography and the politics didn't quite work. There was a lot of willingness.

"But I do think the idea of having four mayors in South Yorkshire, West, North and East, is not beyond the wit of man. And then to sort of have that sort of collaboration. We've got 10 elected mayors now in England and six looking at the North as a whole.

"But it's getting the MPs and the collaboration and the local government all on one side and actually saying 'we're doing this for the greater good and the greater economy and to have some control and work together' because I think the broader point about devolution, it is about how you work together.

"And it's not party political and it's not centralised. It is actually thinking about local economies, what makes them tick, what do people want, and it's more responsive."

'Rural areas can benefit too'

George Osborne's original vision for metro mayors was for them to represent city regions, but Ms Morris believes rural patches like North Yorkshire can still benefit from devolved powers.

She says: "I don't see that urban versus rural is a problem. It is around growth but it's different, whether you're talking about broadband transport, electric vehicles, energy heat pumps, those issues, you still need to have that plan for housing for that matter or health, how it works rurally and how that connectivity between cities and other towns, villages and rural communities, it's really important that you get it right.

"I'm sitting here in Cumbria or the south bit of Cumbria and there's all kinds of potential devo deals, including, South Lakelands moving across with a bit of Lancashire and you'll see a lot more of more of that. But some of the work we're doing very much on net zero, we are looking very much at the rural impacts of things."