One of Yorkshire's most prominent businessmen backs single unitary authority option in North Yorkshire devolution bid

One of the most prominent business figures in Yorkshire has warned that the Government’s levelling up agenda needs to have a greater focus on the North of England to tackle glaring disparities within urban and rural economies.

David Kerfoot has had his say on the North Yorkshire devolution plans

Plans for a massive re-organisation of local government in North Yorkshire are currently being considered by Ministers to pave the way for a multi-billion pound devolution deal.

Two rival bids have been submitted to Westminster for the massive overhaul of North Yorkshire’s local government structure, with a decision expected from Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick this summer.

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David Kerfoot, the former chairman of the North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), has now backed the proposals for a single unitary authority, which he claims will provide the strongest voice for the county to petition the Government.

Mr Kerfoot, who stood down from the role with LEP at the end of last month, told The Yorkshire Post that there now needs to be a renewed focus on eradicating economic divides between countryside communities and urban areas, as well as tackling regional disparities across the nation.

He said: “For too long, the rural economy has suffered as successive governments have focused investment on towns and cities.

“If we are going to reap the benefits of the reorganisation of local government in North Yorkshire, then we need a single, strong voice to ensure the interests of the county are heard loud and clear in Westminster.”

Former Local Government Minister Simon Clarke announced plans for the North Yorkshire deal in July last year, when he urged leaders to “get on with devolution” as it was central to the region’s recovery from coronavirus.

A consultation which has been launched on the two rival bids for North Yorkshire is due to come to an end on Monday, April 19, before a decision on the way forward is expected by Mr Jenrick as early as July.

Mr Kerfoot, who founded the Kerfoot Group in 1980 before the company became the UK’s leading provider of oils to the food, technical and personal care industries, said: “It always infuriated me that we appeared in the first division and not the Premier League in terms of competing against more urban areas.

“I feel that no government has really got to grips with understanding the rural economy, especially in a county as vast and diverse as North Yorkshire.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to look at levelling up in the North of England, not just in North Yorkshire, but places like Cumbria and Northumbria. If you look around towns and cities in Europe, such as Turin, Milan, Dortmund and Hamberg, they are all surrounded by vast rural hinterlands.

“In North Yorkshire, we support major cities such as Leeds and Bradford, providing water, energy, food and flood defences. In the current climate, we will have to be fighting for funding and investment from the Government alongside towns and cities, many of which have a metro mayor with real influence in Westminster.

“We cannot let this chance for devolution slip away, we need an elected mayor for North Yorkshire to make the case for the county.”

The county council is spearheading a campaign to create a “super authority” spanning the whole of England’s largest county to allow a wide-ranging devolution deal to be agreed with the Government.

A bid document sets out requests to the Government totalling £2.4bn which would be spent over a 30-year period on issues including infrastructure, rural transport, skills and education.

District council leaders behind the rival proposals to create two unitary authorities either side of the A1 have argued that a single organisation would not be too big to represent communities across England’s largest county.

However, the leader of Selby District Council, Coun Mark Crane, did acknowledge more needed to be done to tackle the disparities between urban and rural areas.

He said: “The benefits of the east-west split with two unitary authorities would mean that local democracy will still be tailored to the communities it should be serving. If a councillor has to travel the 55 miles from Selby to Northallerton for a council meeting, that does not seem like local democracy in action to me.

“A single unitary authority would simply be too large to provide the accountability that is required.”

The Government maintained that it remains committed to levelling up the nation with the proposals for reorganising local government in North Yorkshire key to rebuilding the county’s economy.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government confirmed that it is continuing to consult on the overhaul of local government ahead of the deadline on Monday.

A spokeswoman said: “We are levelling up and empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster.

“Our £3.6 billion Towns Fund, £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund, £220 million Community Renewal Fund and eight new Freeports will support and regenerate communities across the North, including rural areas.”