Local Government Minister Luke Hall says devolution White Paper was delayed because his department needed all its resources to tackle pandemic

The planned White Paper setting out the Government's vision for devolution of powers to local leaders was delayed after Whitehall's resources were redeployed to tackle the pandemic, a Minister has revealed.

Local Government Minister Luke Hall told a meeting of Yorkshire MPs and council leaders that the blueprint, which was due to be published last Autumn, was "reprioritised" because "there are only so many things that we could do as a department during the pandemic".

But amid fears the Government's interest in transferring powers and resources to the regions from central government has cooled in recent months, he said there was "no lack of ambition" and that the White Paper would be published this year.

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The Conservative Minister was addressing members of the Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire All-Party Parliamentary Group, where he was asked by chairman and North Yorkshire MP Kevin Hollinrake whether it would still be attractive for local leaders to pursue devolution.

A metro mayor with powers over transport, housing and adult education will be elected in West Yorkshire next week, joining Dan Jarvis in the Sheffield City Region who is currently Yorkshire's only other metro mayor.

The Government has promised to start talks with Hull and the East Riding after the local elections about a devolution deal. And in North Yorkshire devolution is linked with the highly controversial reorganisation of local government, which will see the current two-tier system of councils scrapped.

Mr Hollinrake, Tory MP for Thirsk and Malton, told Mr Hall: "If we can use this as a parallel, when schools became academies initially, the ones who went first got a really good financial deal and after a while, it became less attractive but schools still wanted to run their own kind of shows. Is it financially still going to be attractive to go for devolution?"

The Minister replied: "All the councils in West Yorkshire have deemed it to be so because we're delivering a good deal there. And I think you've seen probably a good footprint for further deals around the country being delivered in West Yorkshire. So I think that's positive as well.

"Clearly we had aimed and wanted to deliver a wider white paper on devolution last year, the genuine reason for the delay was just because there are only so many things that we could do as a department during the pandemic, and it's just one that was reprioritised because of that.

"So I think you'll see the wider ambition for devolution coming forward as part of a White Paper, we still want to deliver that, we still want to do it this year. We'd love to have had it done earlier. But we're in this frustrating position of having made the right decision to repurpose the resources to the COVID response.

"But I think you've seen a good footprint for what we want to do in West Yorkshire, we're proud of that, we think it is a good deal and continue those conversations with other areas who want to engage in that throughout the year as well.

"We've had some conversations with Hull and the East Riding, as well. And we'll continue those after the purdah period. We're keen to make progress there if it can be made and a local agreement can be found.

"So there's no lack of ambition. What you'll see is a keenness to get a White Paper done this year to answer the wider questions across the country about devolution."

The consultation on local government reform in North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset ended earlier this month and Mr Hall said the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government had received "thousands of responses".

He said: "That is the good news on the consultations, a huge flurry of responses, which has I think been hugely helpful for us in the process.

"The next stage of that process is before the summer, we will confirm what we think is the most appropriate way forward, if any of those submissions have met the criteria for unitirisation or not that will be before the summer."