The Government’s devolution policies, including the requirement for a directly-elected mayor, represent the opportunity for the biggest ever transfer of monies and powers back to local areas, just where they used to reside. Those areas that already have an elected mayor are already asking for more and are likely to get it.
With the right person in charge and long-overdue increased investment, we can start to close the 50 per cent productivity gap between Yorkshire and London and the South East, which would mean better jobs and higher wages.
It is critically important we don’t waste this opportunity. The first step is for local authority leaders to decide what the geography of our devolution deal should be. Some argue that the we should have one mayor elected by, and representing, Yorkshire’s 5.3 million population. We contend that we should have four mayors, each representing their own city regions of York, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. Clearly, the precise boundaries and challenges such as links between Hull and the south bank of the Humber will need addressing.
Directly-elected mayors are commonplace in the US, France and many other countries. They stand for election on their own personal manifesto. Many will come from a political background, for example Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham was previously a MP. Others will not have had a political career, as is the case with Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands region. He was previously chief executive of John Lewis.
As political guru Steve Hilton argues in his book More Human, mayors are “recognisable, accountable and responsive” and “focus on getting things done because they literally have to live with the results”. Could anyone reasonably argue that a single mayor based in Leeds or Bradford would be accountable and responsive to the people of York, Thirsk, Malton or Filey or inspired to make a difference to local people’s lives in these areas on a daily basis?
A mayor who covered a York City Region, to include York and North Yorkshire, would more closely understand and appreciate the needs of those rural and urban communities. The same is true for Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster where economic and transport links to the south are at least as important than links to the north.
Whatever the final arrangement for devolution, we need to make sure it genuinely transfers powers downwards nearer to communities and does not recentralise them as one mayor covering five million people would undoubtedly do.
The Government’s original devolution policy, as championed by Business Secretary Greg Clark, was based on cities that are linked by common transport, employment and economic development requirements. Treasury experts are also firmly of the belief that city regions are best placed drive productivity, the key to improving prosperity for everyone.
What we must guard against is devolution resulting in increased bureaucracy and cost to the taxpayer. This is much more likely to happen at a Yorkshire-wide level. Despite being in favour of a Yorkshire-wide deal, Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Vince Cable MP, recently highlighted the danger that we “spend years reorganising bureaucracies” rather than getting on with the job of improving opportunities and lives.
City regions provide the platform to better organise our many different agencies, clinical commissioning groups, health trusts, emergency services, local enterprise partnerships and local authorities based upon common, co-terminous boundaries. It is a constant source of amazement and frustration to witness the number of agencies all who operate on different geographical regions. This means that you can’t easily get all the right people in the right room at the right time, something that is so vital and a pre-requisite to efficiency and success in the world of business.
Those who prefer the Yorkshire option often claim that we would get more money per capita, but the facts don’t support that. The smaller the devolution deals actually get more money per capita, with the Tees Valley Region and Sheffield City Region topping the list.
Yorkshire has an amazing, world-class brand that has never been stronger, but there is nothing in a city region model that would undermine this and the four mayors would work together on region-wide matters.
Sheffield City Region has now been established and voters elected Labour MP Dan Jarvis as their first mayor. We now need Dan to get on with his job and let the other parts of Yorkshire decide how to transfer powers from Whitehall to town halls so that we are, once more, the masters of our own destiny.
Kevin Hollinrake is Conservative MP for Thirsk & Malton and Clive Betts is Labour MP for Sheffield South East. Both are both members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee which Clive chairs.