Yorkshire devolution: How we got to this point

IT STARTED with a speech in 2014.

George Osborne
George Osborne

With a year to go to the General Election, George Osborne set out his vision for the ‘northern powerhouse’, a North of England with towns and cities so well connected their collective strength could take on the major urban economies of the world.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

And, critically, a North of England taking more decisions for itself through new mayors, directly-elected and covering areas that crossed council boundaries and wielding powers transferred from Whitehall to help grow their local economies faster.

The then Chancellor’s apparent conversion to the cause of devolution was welcomed in the North but his insistence that elected mayors be the condition of taking powers from the Government was questioned in many quarters, including by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

But while others debated, Greater Manchester decided to take the plunge and their devolution agreement, including a mayor, was announced in November.

The election of a Conservative government in May 2015 ended the debate over mayors. Freed from coalition niceties, Mr Osborne was clear real powers would only go to elected mayors.

As they grudgingly admitted the mayors argument was lost, Yorkshire council leaders were faced with a second problem - geography. Which council areas should join together and elect new mayors?

Yorkshire’s tangle was graphically illustrated in September 2015 when the Government asked councils interested in devolution to put forward their proposals.

Yorkshire submitted six different plans, some overlapping, some involving councils who had not even signed them off.

Labour dominated South Yorkshire was not the obvious place to reach an agreement with a Conservative chancellor of the exchequer.

But with Mr Osborne needing to show progress on his Northern Powerhouse agenda before the Conservative Party conference in autumn 2015, council leaders in the area felt they had maximum leverage and struck a deal.

New powers and extra money would be handed to the Sheffield City Region and a mayor for the area elected in May 2017.

But the rest of Yorkshire has remained unable to reach agreement with each other, let alone the Government.

A Leeds City Region deal - covering West Yorkshire, Harrogate and Craven, faltered over concerns in North Yorkshire about the ‘loss’ of two districts and opposition from West Yorkshire Conservative MPs worried about the near-certainty that the area’s mayor would be Labour.

Despite working on a common economic agenda around ports and wind power, the idea of a Humber deal and mayor failed to gain traction amid the longstanding division between the authorities on both sides of the estuary.

A solution known as Greater Yorkshire, covering the whole region outside South Yorkshire failed to get support as some council leaders questioned what the economies of West and North Yorkshire had in common.

Then the Sheffield City Region deal started to fracture.

Brexit, tensions between council leaders over the proposed location of South Yorkshire’s HS2 station, the desire of some to consider other devolution options and a court ruling on the legality of the deal all culminated in this week’s decision to delay the mayoral election until next year.

January 2017 saw the emergence of “A Devolution Proposition for All of Yorkshire” - now known as the ‘One Yorkshire’ plan - proposing a Yorkshire mayor and cabinet working with combined authorites representing different parts of the region.

In April, Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid used a letter to West Yorkshire council leaders to set out the criteria that would be used to judge Yorkshire devolution proposals.

He stressed devolution deals could only involve a mayor working with a single combined authority - effectively ruling out the One Yorkshire proposal in its current form but not rejecting the idea of a region-wide deal altogether.

Mr Javid said any proposals would have to be “consistent” with the Sheffield City Region mayoral election going ahead in 2018. Some have taken that to be an insistence the Sheffield City Region deal goes ahead in its current form, others that Mr Javid will accept alternative proposals as long as a mayor whose remit includes South Yorkshire is elected next year.

The Local Government Secretary asked for options to be presented to him with the aim of concluding agreement in 2017.