'˜Federation of Small Businesses welcomes progress on ambitious Yorkshire devolution deal'

IT has been a long and a hard road.

The Federation of Small Businesses welcomes the progress that has been made in recent days towards an ambitious Yorkshire devolution deal – as do many others in the wider Yorkshire business community.

We believe that such a Yorkshire devolution deal is essential to meet the needs of businesses, especially small businesses, over the challenging years to come.

Why is this?

First, we believe that Yorkshire has a distinctive identity and a distinctive voice that needs to be heard.

To the south, Yorkshire spills over into the Midlands but on its other three sides Yorkshire is bounded by the Pennines, nears the Tees and faces the North Sea – and that vast and diverse geography needs to be represented.

Second, business success in Yorkshire is reliant on the ability to influence where Westminster and national providers invest their money.

For instance, our members consistently say that better broadband and transport links are their top priorities.

Progress in these areas depends on attracting more public investment in infrastructure.

But a weak and divided Yorkshire will not attract the investment it needs.

Moreover, in the future, it will be the job of the Northern Powerhouse to make the argument for investment in the North as a whole.

A weak and divided Yorkshire will be a drag on the ambition of the Northern Powerhouse.

We must not forget the vital role that members of the Government and Members of Parliament will play in making the devolution process for Yorkshire succeed. Yorkshire has rarely needed their support more than it does in these times.

I say this as a non-partisan observation about the Ministerial and Parliamentary help that Yorkshire requires. The party-political neutrality of the Federation of Small Businesses is known to all those we have dealt with over many years.

Third, small businesses also need access to help and advice that is currently provided by a multitude of organisations across the county.

That help and advice is often not easily accessible to smaller firms.

Our research shows that this advice is particularly important to small businesses that want to grow.

Small businesses in Yorkshire need improved access to finance and business support across a range of issues such as export advice, business planning, mentoring, skills and training.

All these are delivered by a variety of local authority and Local Enterprise Partnership programmes along boundaries that mean little to small businesses.

Our research shows that business uptake of these programmes is not at the level it should be.

Current help and advice delivery structures are also uneven, and vulnerable to the loss of European funding in future.

As our big cities get bigger, they attract more and more resources, threatening to leave many once-prosperous smaller towns struggling.

The left-behind areas not only suffer from weaker economies, they get fewer resources to put things right.

We need a simpler, bigger-scale system that has a consistent offer across the county, with the likes of Castleford and Pontefract getting the help they need as much as Leeds and Hull.

And devolution must deliver the support that small businesses in our coastal and huge rural areas need too.

Devolution has to mean something everywhere. Equitable support for the small businesses that are cornerstones of so many far-flung Yorkshire communities has to be one of the ground rules of the new devolved arrangements from the very beginning.

The need for fair distribution of resources is not just about economic efficiency. It is also vital for the democratic legitimacy of any new combined Yorkshire authority.

We believe that where local government is united and has strong support from its population, it can be an effective agent of change.

There is a clear parallel between effective local government and organisations that succeed: they must have clearly defined statutory powers, duties, authorities and clearly defined channels through which they can be held accountable.

The devolved arrangements across Yorkshire must have all these features in place from the very beginning.

This clearly defined devolved framework is the foundation on which Yorkshire’s business and strategic economic plans must be developed in order to be credible.

We need these plans to be authentic, so they can gain the wide public agreement that is vital to underpinning the much-delayed investment of public cash in Yorkshire’s skills and infrastructure.

That cash is what Yorkshire needs to develop its economy equitably and reduce the gaps between our county and the rest of the UK.

Otherwise our transport system will struggle to cope with the strains we can all see, and our skills will languish to the detriment of future Yorkshire people and their employers.

We need ambitious devolution across Yorkshire to take us forward visibly.

We need wide prior agreement on what the successful results of devolution will look like, just as much as we need agreement on the means to deliver that success. Wasting this chance of ambitious devolved arrangements for Yorkshire crafted after so many years of hard work would be dreadful.

I fear Yorkshire might not get another chance.

Chris Longley MBE is Yorkshire Area Policy Representative for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).