Future of Humber devolution remains uncertain after row over role of Local Enterprise Partnership chair Stephen Parnaby

Some forty miles long and eight miles wide at its mouth, the River Humber has been a major boundary for centuries, with the name Northumbria deriving from the Anglo-Saxon literally meaning 'the people north of the Humber'.

More recently it has been a huge economic asset to the North, hosting the largest ports complex by tonnage in the country and ranked as the fourth largest trading estuary in Europe.

But getting political leaders either side of the river, with Hull and the East Riding to the north and two Lincolnshire authorities on the South Bank, to unite around a political vision for the area and its economic future has proven to be more complicated.

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A couple look at The Humber Bridge, Hull..(Tech Data Nikon D3s camera, 12-24mm lens, Exposure 400th sec at f5.6, iso 200).5th November 2018 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Humberside County Council, set up in 1974, was broken up and split into four two decades later. And earlier this year, despite the efforts of a succession of government Ministers to tie both sides of the river into a cross-Humber devolution deal, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire decided to go their own way.

The waters have been muddied further by events at the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the body created to grow the area's economy, with fury in some quarters at the decision to appoint a long-standing former council leader as its interim chairman for what could be the next three years.

It all means that as this crucial part of the Northern Powerhouse enters the post-coronavirus and post-Brexit world, questions remain over who will take the decisions about how best to take advantage of its considerable natural assets.

Angry accusations about the leadership of the LEP burst into the open this Spring when it emerged that Lord Chris Haskins, who had held the chairmanship since its creation in 2011, would be replaced by his deputy Stephen Parnaby.

A reflection of the The Humber Bridge. Pic: James Hardisty. Camera, Nikon D5. Lens, Nikon 70-200mm. Shutter Speed, 1/800sec. Aperture, f/7.1. ISO, 160

Mr Parnaby, Yorkshire's longest-serving town hall leader until stepping down from East Riding of Yorkshire Council last year, was among three candidates interviewed earlier in the year to replace Lord Haskins but not appointed.

In what was described as a 'grubby fix' by the Hull Chamber of Commerce, a claim denied by LEP bosses, he was later announced as interim chairman for the next "two or three years" while the new political and economic set-up either side of the Humber is agreed.

The matter was taken up by Hull North MP Diana Johnson, who in a letter to Minister Simon Clarke questioned why the LEP and its multi-million pound regeneration budget was to be led by a former politician rather than someone from the business community.

In the Leeds City Region, Sheffield City Region and North Yorkshire the areas' LEPs, seen for years as a vital tool in transforming local economies, are led by people from business backgrounds.Labour MP Dame Diana wrote that the appointment "appears to have been made without consulting key business stakeholders and short-circuits a process that local MPs have been told would conclude this October".

The sun pokes through the mist over the River Humber casting a shadow onto the water. Picture Post taken on a Nikon D3s camera with a 24-70mm lens with an exposure of 1/8000th sec at f14 with an ISO of 500. Pic: Gary Longbottom

She suggested that it fell short of the Nolan principles which are the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders and "appears to me exactly reminiscent of the mode of behaviour that the 1990s committee on standards in public life sought to end in our country".

Her letter concluded: "I am aware that my concerns are shared in the Humber business community and across party political affiliations. Unless these concerns are addressed, I fear that there will be a lack of confidence in the Humber LEP."

Mike Whitehead, vice president of the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce and one of the other interviewed candidates to replace Lord Haskins, asked Mr Clarke in a separate letter "to consider establishing an independent investigation into whether there has been malfeasance involved".

But in his response a few days later, the Conservative Minister said the decision was one the LEP's board "was entitled to make and appears to government to be a reasonable and pragmatic way forward".

8 November 2009....... Picture Post..... View from Kilnsea over the Spurn Peninsular as the sun breaks through the clouds by the oil gas drilling rig in the Humber Estuary. Nikon D2h 400ISO 70mm lens 125th @f9 Pic: Tony Johnson

He added: "My most senior official in Yorkshire and Humber attended the Board as an observer, and reported that everything was done openly, transparently and in line with good corporate governance."

Speaking from his home in Skidby in the Yorkshire Wolds, Lord Haskins insists that the interim appointment of Mr Parnaby made sense because there were no other suitable candidates and the uncertainty around the future of the LEP made it unlikely any others would come forward.

"It is quite logical in a situation like that if the chairman wants to go, I'm way over my time, I should have gone three or four years ago, the logical thing for the board to do would be to step the deputy chairman up in his place."

He adds: "{The LEP board] asked me to stay on, I thought about it and said I'm not going to do this, I'm 83 and I'm slightly fed up with the local politics."

Meanwhile, Tory MP for Brigg and Goole Andrew Percy points out that "Lord Haskins was himself a political member of the House of Lords so I am not sure [the Chamber's} concerns on that front really hold out."

With the Government unwilling to intervene Mr Parnaby, who is also the business development director at local company Wren Kitchens, is now in a position to lead the LEP until 2022 or 2023, putting him in a powerful position to decide where economic growth funding goes.

Looking across The Deep to the Humber . Beyond is Hull Docks where an 80 million investment in a wind turbine assembly and project execution facility at Greenport Hull shows Siemens' commitment to the UK wind industry. (BR1002 47f) 24 March 2014. Picture Bruce Rollinson

At this point, the Humber's political arrangement will likely break into two after the two northern Lincolnshire authorities signalled earlier this year that they wanted to join a devolution arrangement with the rest of their historic county to the south.

In his letter Mr Clarke, a former policy advisor to local Tory MP Graham Stuart, admitted this was not the Government's preferred outcome, and that a cross-Humber power structure would be better.

But unlike in Yorkshire, where Ministers insisted on a Sheffield City Region deal and refused to countenance a devolution arrangement for the whole of the county, Ministers decided not to force local authorities to join a particular geography.

The turning point in the process was the 2019 General Election, where Labour MPs for Grimsby and Scunthorpe were voted out in favour of Conservatives who view links with the rest of Lincolnshire as more important than those across the river. Many in northern Lincolnshire still remember Humberside County Council and the perception that decision-making and resources mostly benefited the North Bank.

A proposed combined authority for Hull and the East Riding alone, potentially taking the funding that currently goes to the LEP, is what remains and talks are at an early stage over what this could look like.

The Government wants to fast-track the process, hopefully also creating a cross-Humber structure which allows the four authorities to work together. But talks are still at an early stage and whatever is created will lack the clout of bigger authorities like West Yorkshire because of its relatively small population.

The Yorkshire Post understands that even the creation of an elected metro mayor, a prerequisite for other devolution deals, is not guaranteed and local leaders would need to get an attractive deal from government before they agree.

Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership representing business and civic leaders, argues that the Humber is a vital part of the economy of the North.

He said: "The ports, including Immingham and Hull across the river from each other, have the potential for what the next phase of offshore wind could mean, with opportunities for energy storage, manufacturing and large scale assembly, while train manufacturing at Goole by Siemens and Carbon Capture Use and Storage using Drax’s expertise to create negative emissions electricity to reduce the wider carbon impact of the Humber industrial base.

"It is disappointing that a Mayor for the Humber isn’t the preferred option on the South Bank, but without them we have accepted that Hull and East Yorkshire is a compelling basis to drive forward the great city of Hull with its neighbours on a cross party basis supported by their businesses and leading industrialists.

“No deal with Lincolnshire as a county should be permitted without a committee of the two new Metro Mayors and Industry, North and South of the river, locking in the legacy of Lord Haskins in making a case for what is still the most coherent economic geography for building growth."

According to Lord Haskins, the decision of the Lincolnshire authorities to break away highlights "where politics and economics run up against each other".

"I think one of the leaders there recognises the economic logic of the Humber LEP but the politics are different. There's always been this tension politically between the people at the South Bank and North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire and the people of the North Bank particularly Hull, there's been this suspicion ever since Humberside County Council was set up that it was run by Hull."

Citing the example of a bid to host a low-tax free port post-Brexit, he says a number of key issues locally are best dealt with at a Humber level.

"If you take the whole energy issue, particularly offshore wind but not just offshore wind, decarbonisation, politicians on both sides of the debate agree that's a Humber issue.

"If you take issues like assembly, take things being put together, coming through the ports, that is a Humber issue, if you look at the issue of floods, that is a Humber issue. I'm not saying everything is Humber, retail isn't, but on some key industrial issues there is a Humber aspect to it which will now be diluted."

The Humber estuary, which the Humber Bridge crosses. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe 8th August 2018.