But David Kerfoot, who chairs the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, fears the county could be consigned to “second division” status without the powers and funding that come from a devolution deal with central government.
Political leaders in North Yorkshire have put together a set of ‘asks’ from Ministers which could see as much as £2.4bn in extra investment as well as the creation of a metro mayor with a host of powers currently held by Westminster.
But it is feared the Government may be planning to delay the process because of the ongoing Brexit and pandemic uncertainty, potentially depriving England’s largest county of much-needed investment.
There are also fierce local disagreements over how a proposed local government shake-up, which Ministers say is a condition of the deal, will work.
A devolution deal would mean North Yorkshire would join other areas of the country, including the Tees Valley and Sheffield City Region, with powerful metro mayors. Mr Kerfoot, who founded a firm manufacturing edible oils with his wife, Elizabeth, in 1980 and grew it into a major business, said a huge amount of work had gone into the ‘asks’.
As well as a funding pot from Westminster worth £750m over 25 years, the submission contains proposals for government funding to be handed over in areas including housing, transport, skills, regeneration and energy.
Mr Kerfoot said: “It’s down to the local politicians. I just find it really staggering that some of them just don’t see the bigger picture, or the bigger prize or the bigger ask.
“Ultimately, I don’t know if the Government will say ‘we are going to stop devolution because we have too much on our plate with Brexit and Covid and the economic situation. I hope not, it is absolutely essential for this region that we do not get left behind.
“There are lots of areas like Somerset, Surrey, Cumbria, Lincolnshire all on our coat-tails, in good places to take up the mantle. I do not want to be left behind.”
The asks have yet to be formally submitted to the Treasury for consideration as some North Yorkshire district authorities are yet to sign them off.
Mr Kerfoot said: “I think we are losing time with that. Anyone who is not devolved is in the second division. You can decide more on where the funding is spent with these devolved powers and also have greater input.”
He stressed the importance of ‘place-making’ - making an area distinct from others to attract visitors - which requires a focus on a variety of factors including social cohesion, education, health, environment and heritage.
Mr Kerfoot, whose term as the LEP’s chairman ends next year, said while North Yorkshire towns had started making themselves fit for the 21st century, “there is an awful lot of work to do”.
But he said: “At the end of the day it is about brass and the funding. And the only way you can do it is if you’ve got really good strong leadership who want to actually do something and get results. But things like that do need funding.
“That’s why it comes back to the success of devolution and how we take that forward. To get some kind of package like a devolved towns fund would make a massive difference and would increase the rate of acceleration.”