James Reed: Pledge to shift power to local leaders

FORMER US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was said to have once asked: 'Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?'

The Leeds skyline - what now for Yorkshire devolution?

A similar question has long been asked over who speaks for the North of England – and the party conference season has revealed the likely answer will not be the one favoured by leaders from this region.

Even before they are elected next May, the next generation of metro-mayors are already staking a claim to be the voice of the North.

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Numerous fringe events saw Labour and Conservative mayoral candidates invited to the respective conferences in Liverpool, and then Birmingham, to give their views on devolution, transport, the Northern Powerhouse and rebalancing the economy.

Ostensibly speaking as Shadow Home Secretary before stepping down as part of the latest Shadow Cabinet shake-up, Andy Burnham used his Labour conference speech to rail against decades of failure of Westminster to meet the needs of the North. It was a shameless pitch by the Leigh MP as part of his candidacy to be Greater Manchester’s mayor.

Alliances are already being formed between mayoral candidates to join forces and press the Government on areas of mutual interest once the May elections are done and dusted. Expect winning Labour candidates in May to work with London mayor Sadiq Khan on a distinctly Labour mayoral agenda.

Mr Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the MP and Corbyn aide hoping to be the Liverpool City Region mayor, are almost running as a joint ticket.

And why should Yorkshire worry?

Because it is not part of this increasingly influential conversation.

The Sheffield City Region devolution deal, which should see a new metro-mayor for the area elected in 2017, is teetering as South Yorkshire councils clash over HS2. The agreement is also facing a legal challenge from Derbyshire County Council.

In the absence of certainty over the deal, there are not even official candidates for the mayoral role.

The rest of the region continues to wrestle over which councils should work together to agree a deal as political and geographical tensions continue to prevent progress.

Those who have expressed concern about Yorkshire being ‘left behind’ have been reassured that previous devolution agreements already give the region powers and money other parts of the North do not enjoy.

Metro mayors, they are told, will be little more than local government committee chairs, with tightly defined powers and constrained by combined authorities of local council leaders.

And to a degree they are right. The “powerful metro-mayors” tag often attached to these new roles is not based on the reality of the job defined in the fine print of the devolution deals.

But the lesson from the party conference season is that the influence of metro-mayors will extend beyond their narrow job description.

It is increasingly clear that the mere fact of carrying the title ‘mayor of Greater Manchester’ will convey significant authority on Andy Burnham who will almost certainly win the North West race. Though control over health spending has been devolved to Manchester, it will not be a mayoral responsibility but that has not stopped Mr Burnham making his views clear.

When the coalition pushed to create city mayors, it also proposed they would sit in a “Mayors Cabinet” with a direct route to the Prime Minister.

The fact so many cities rejected mayors in referendums held in 2012 meant the idea never came to fruition, but it is not hard to imagine it could be resurrected by the May government to bring together metro-mayors for regular Downing Street meetings.

One source told me that I should not be surprised if following May’s elections, government announcements on regional development will focus on what money they are giving to metro-mayors to help rebalance the economy.

When the work of the Civil Service is going to be dominated by Brexit, there will be a natural preference to work with one individual where they can on regional matters.

And at a more mundane level, when Radio 4’s Today programme is looking for someone to articulate the views of the North of England, who are they going to call?

At this week’s Conservative Party conference, Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke ended the doubt over whether Theresa May’s government would insist on metro-mayors as part of devolution deals.

He told council leaders that they needed to bring forward plans for metro-mayors if they want serious powers and money from Whitehall.

So now the choice is clear for Yorkshire. Take it or leave it.

Mayors or nothing more than what we have already secured in previous agreements.

Local leaders can make the case that the devolution deals are not the right way forward for Yorkshire. But, if that is the path they choose, it looks increasingly likely they will have also to accept that this county will struggle to make its voice heard in the years to come and the call – when it comes – will be made to a regional rival rather than Yorkshire.

James Reed is political editor of The Yorkshire Post.