The answer, from Westminster at least, appears to be a resounding yes. Over recent months, it has become increasingly apparent that city regions with elected mayors will receive priority treatment across a whole range of policy areas, allowing greater freedom to develop strategies to support growth, encourage investment and create jobs.
In last November’s budget, the Chancellor announced the creation of a £1.7bn ‘Transforming Cities’ fund to support the improvement of transport infrastructure within city-regions. Half of this fund will be allocated to regions with elected mayors, with the likes of Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Tees Valley to benefit from this additional funding.
Meanwhile, areas without directly elected mayors will be forced to compete for the remainder of the cash. Whilst directly elected mayors will soon be able to put this fund to use on transport projects as they see fit, here in Yorkshire our leaders will once again have to go cap in hand to government to get the money so desperately needed to renew our creaking public transport network.
Areas with devolved powers and directly elected mayors were also the big winners in the recently published Industrial Strategy White Paper, which sets out the government’s plan to improve productivity across the whole of the UK.
City-regions with elected mayors will, from 2019, receive new devolved powers over adult education, helping cities to develop the skills needed to future proof their local economies. A new fund to develop the capacity of Mayoral Combined Authorities is also set to be made available, with mayors receiving additional support to deliver local plans to tackle the housing crisis.
Slowly but surely, we are moving towards a two-track industrial strategy in England. On the one hand, mayoral regions are being granted ever greater control over their local economies, benefitting from the ability to deliver policies emphasising strengths and addressing weaknesses. On the other, regions without metro mayors are being left to compete over more limited funds.
This situation is contributing to a growing east-west divide in Northern England, with productivity in Greater Manchester pulling away from Yorkshire and the North East over the last decade. Yorkshire is home to two of Britain’s great urban success stories, with Sheffield forging the way in the creative industries and renewable energy, and GVA growth in Leeds exceeding even inner London over recent years.
However, low levels of investment, particularly in infrastructure, is stifling growth in other areas. Commuters in Bradford, for example, are faced with the option of a 20-minute rail journey to Leeds on a still-unelectrified line, or a car journey on heavily congested roads. Almost three quarters of the 45,000 commuters that make this eight mile journey every day choose to drive. We all know the importance of improving connectivity between Yorkshire’s towns and cities, and across the Pennines to Manchester. But to unlock our historic county’s potential we need real powers for our local leaders, and proper funding to deliver the investment required.
Ultimately, what matters is what works – and it is becoming increasingly apparent that directly elected mayors are the only game in town as far as the government is concerned.
At present, Sheffield City Region is set to elect a mayor in May, however Barnsley and Doncaster have already announced they wish to exit the South Yorkshire deal and instead join with the rest of Yorkshire to negotiate a ‘One Yorkshire’ deal. It is positive to see local leaders acknowledge the importance of achieving some form of devo deal, and recent suggestions of a two-year term for the Sheffield City Region mayor to allow time for a One Yorkshire agreement to be reached shows a welcome degree of compromise and pragmatism.
At this pivotal moment in Yorkshire’s devolution journey, businesses need to get behind local government leaders to help secure a deal and government must strike whilst the iron is hot to ensure Yorkshire doesn’t become the forgotten heart of the Northern Powerhouse.
Steve Gillingham is Director for the North at Mace