However as we know too well from John Prescott’s failed regional referendum in the North East all those years ago, if the offer in terms of powers, accountability and transparency is not good enough, devolution could fail again 15 years on. So some words of caution are in order along with encouragement to get this right this time.
Back in the Prescott era, I was one of the deputy leaders of the new East Riding Council, and on behalf of the leadership group I was often delegated to deal with things having a regional dimension. So I can remember it was with some excitement that I attended a pre-meeting of what was to become the Yorkshire & Humber Assembly. In those days the word ‘assembly’ sounded quite radical, even revolutionary, but nothing could have been further from the reality which emerged over the coming years. This was a dysfunctional amalgam of local council representatives and leaders from across the region, all of whom had their day jobs in their own councils. Of course there were many who tried to make it work, but fundamentally it was officer-led and lacking transparency and clarity of purpose. It had no powers of its own, so it remained mainly a talking shop, and when busy local representatives had other demands on their time in their own patch where they could actually achieve something these were bound to take priority.
This should be a warning. Whilst it is to be applauded that the majority of council leaders across Yorkshire have finally come together to support county-wide devolution we have to have an open discussion to decide on the shape that will take. We must not revert to the model they propose of a cabinet of council leaders. What comes next has to be both transparent in its decision making structures and directly accountable to the people of Yorkshire. The most obvious available examples from the UK in our own country are the London Mayor and Assembly or even the Welsh Assembly. However we should feel free to have and enable a Yorkshire-wide debate about the type of modern and inclusive structure which would best suit our needs.
After all, when it comes to a devolution model, we start with a blank sheet of paper. We could go for something small and flexible, use smart new ways of involving the diversity that is Yorkshire. We could use technology in democracy and decision-making, even have a few representatives picked at random (like jurors to serve for a limited period). Our imagination in drawing on our history and diversity should know no bounds. What this should not be is re-run of old failed structures and recycled politicians, indeed arguably that no politician should serve more than two consecutive mandates. Yorkshire can do better.
What we need to do at this stage is open up the doors for people across Yorkshire to get involved in the discussion about how they want their county to look in the future. After all, up until now, this has seemed to be a very private conversation between local council leaders and Government Ministers.
There are plenty of models across the globe of how to set up an open democratic conversation to decide on a new structure: British Columbia, Ontario, Iceland and Ireland. We should start by asking people the big questions : ‘How should Yorkshire be governed?’ and tease out preferences for parliament, mayor, city regions or even nothing. We should go on to ask people what responsibilities should be devolved from London. Should all or some of education and skills, transport, housing, health and social care, economic strategy become priorities for us in Yorkshire? And then perhaps the big question: ‘Should Yorkshire be able to raise its own taxes?’
In those limited cases of when people have been involved in discussing the issue they have come up with some bold conclusions. Back in 2015 I gave evidence to a Democracy Matters’ Citizen’s Assembly held in Sheffield. A representative sample of residents from across South Yorkshire were asked about devolution matters and by a majority they voted:
for the Yorkshire & Humber area to form the basis for regional devolution
for a directly elected regional assembly
for stronger powers for the area to include some tax-setting and law-making powers, so there is real power in the area over issues such as transport, infrastructure, economic development and education.
We have seen the people of Yorkshire get behind the Tour de Yorkshire and the Yorkshire county cricket team. Let’s take that dynamism and pride in our region, which exists in so many walks of life, to create something of which we can be equally enthusiastic about and proud. Let’s make our democratic model the envy of the world so that in future people come here to learn how to really make devolution work.
Diana Wallis is a member of the Yorkshire Party. She’s a former Lib Dem MEP for the region.