James Reed: Eyes on post-election devolution debate

What next for Yorkshire devolution?What next for Yorkshire devolution?
What next for Yorkshire devolution?
IT IS a popular misconception that politicians are absorbed by the next day's headlines and struggle to think beyond next week.

Of course this is true for one or two individuals, but my experience is that many politicians spend a lot of time looking much further into the future.

Though all thoughts are focused on the General Election next Thursday, many in Labour circles already have half an eye on local elections next year.

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And a scenario being sketched out gives hints over the direction the Yorkshire devolution debate may take once a new government is in office. The existing Sheffield City Region devolution deal was put on hold by a mixture of a legal ruling and indications from Doncaster and Barnsley that they would be interested in looking at alternative options, including a single Yorkshire-wide deal.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs in West and North Yorkshire have been among the principal forces guiding the last Government away from agreeing a Leeds City Region deal and towards a broader Greater Yorkshire agreement covering the whole of the region, apart from South Yorkshire.

Despite Labour’s recent improved performance in opinion polls, the party is still on track to lose several Westminster seats in West Yorkshire to the Conservatives. Regardless of whether Mr Corbyn remains leader beyond the General Election, many respected Labour figures believe that it will be difficult for the party to comprehensively turnaround its fortunes in time for next May’s local elections.

Those feeling particularly gloomy point to the fact that the Conservatives have held the reins at Calderdale, Kirklees, Bradford and Leeds in recent memory and speculate that success for the Tories on June 8 could be followed by similar local government gains next year.

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It is expected that a re-elected Conservative government will again press those involved with the Sheffield City Region to go ahead with their existing deal, and the election of a metro-mayor, rather than consider other options. That, in turn, will force Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton and Doncaster executive mayor Ros Jones – both Labour – to choose between proceeding with a concrete deal or walking away from it to throw their lot in with West Yorkshire which now has more Conservative MPs, the prospect of local government in the area having a blue hue and no guarantee that any agreement could be reached.

Add into the mix the strong suspicion that Theresa May is less than passionate about English devolution, and the expectation that the Civil Service will be overwhelmed by the administrative challenge posed by Brexit, and the prospects of further deals being agreed quickly looks remote.

In those circumstances, it is hard to imagine Barnsley and Doncaster doing anything other than pursuing the safest course and returning to the Sheffield City Region fold leaving West, North and East Yorkshire to consider their next move.

Here, the scenario becomes far harder to navigate. The Conservative manifesto suggests that for devolution deals centred on cities, the party will “continue to support the adoption of elected mayors” but it “will not support them for the rural counties”. This declaration is hard to square with the Greater Yorkshire option favoured by Conservative MPs in the last Parliament and supported by Northern Powerhouse Minister Andrew Percy which covers urban and rural areas. Instead it points to deals for the Leeds City Region, and perhaps the Humber, with a rural deal for North and East Yorkshire, the type of settlement many Conservatives have been actively resisting.

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Fundamentally, the manifesto signals an intention by the Conservatives to continue an approach to devolution which involves areas securing powers meeting criteria laid down by central Government rather than being allowed to pursue arrangements which best meet local circumstances.

JEREMY Corbyn’s last minute decision to take part in last night’s televised debate was a deserved triumph for the broadcasters. Critics were quick to leap on disappointing viewing figures for ITV’s earlier leaders debate which did not feature either the Prime Minister or the Labour leader.

But I think ITV deserves credit for going ahead and its fellow broadcasters for continuing to make the case for debates in the run-up to election. It would be dangerous indeed if politicians ever felt they could shape the way elections are covered by opting in or out of particular media engagements.

Mr Corbyn’s about-turn may have been driven by polls rather than an instinctive belief in public accountability but it was nevertheless a just reward for the broadcasters’ refusal to back down.