Experts on localism and devolution from across Yorkshire coalesced at DevoConnect’s Devo Question Time in Leeds last week, discussing how devolution can be progressed successfully in the region. While all were agreed that the opportunity needed seizing, and that ‘brand Yorkshire’ should be capitalised on, the one-Yorkshire vision emanating from some quarters was met with a steely pessimism – or pragmatism – from others.
The panellists were of a diversity of political colour, with Diana Wallis, Yorkshire Party Spokesperson and former Lib Dem MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber; Cllr Carl Les, Conservative Leader of North Yorkshire County Council; and Cllr James Lewis, Labour Deputy Leader of Leeds City Council. Experienced parliamentarian Richard Caborn, former MP and Minister for the Regions, joined the debate, and Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield made a surprise appearance. Mike Regnier, the new Chief Executive of Yorkshire Building Society and Jane Thomas, of the Sheffield Fairness Commission and former Chair of Campaign for Yorkshire, provided some valuable perspective and insight. Gill Morris, CEO of DevoConnect, who chaired Devo Question Time, invited all panellists to answer the ‘big’ question: where next for Yorkshire, and what would their solution be to the current impasse, with Yorkshire in danger of being left behind in the race for devolved power across the North.
Barry Sheerman did not mince his words, saying that the recent Brexit vote made the weeks ahead as important as the run up to World War II. The loss of EU funding would be huge, argued Sheerman, and if leadership and vision was not forthcoming, the region could be “more of a laughing stock than it has been for the last two years.” This point was reiterated by Cllr Carl Les, who made clear that getting an agreement quickly was vital to him. Despite being one of the earliest deals to be signed, Sheffield City Region is in trouble, with its mayoral vote delayed to at least May 2018, and a ‘one-Yorkshire’ bid has been described as ‘illegal’ by one Government minister. An ambitious West Yorkshire Combined Authority Bid resulted in one of the smallest transfer of powers agreed to date.
One of the big barriers to reaching agreement in Yorkshire is its geography. The six areas going into mayoral elections in May are, more or less, the surrounding areas of large cities: Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, Middlesbrough and Bristol. A ‘pan-Yorkshire’ deal would encompass several cities and towns: Sheffield, Leeds-Bradford, Huddersfield, York and Hull; in addition to the vast rural county that is North Yorkshire. A mayor of Yorkshire would have far more democratic legitimacy, weight, and buy-in from local people, said Cllr Lewis, and Jane Thomas’s suggestion of several combined authorities underneath such a mayor could help the model work. A successful mayor should be “as big as Boris”, said Cllr Carl Les, though Richard Caborn felt that Government would not accept a one mayor option. In any case, the devo deals to date do not cover single metropolises: residents of Bolton or Wigan would attest to that. Moreover, Yorkshire’s population of 5 million would fit devolution proponent Lord Jim O’Neill’s preference for functional city-regions – who three years ago suggested merging Liverpool and Manchester to create a working geography.
Emulating Manchester’s perceived success was an inevitable undercurrent, with one audience member proffering that [while] “Manchester’s steaming ahead, Yorkshire’s a rowing boat with everyone fighting for the oars.” Cllr Lewis challenged the narrative; “let Manchester and Liverpool catch up with Leeds City Region” he said, which has a stronger economy (a 2016 forecast by EY found that Leeds will have the highest GVA growth outside of London for the next few years). The past five years have seen big achievements, argued Cllr Lewis: the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), Transport for the North, and cross-Pennine co-operation. The Smith Institute’s Paul Hackett, contributing from the floor, argued that “London looked to Scotland, Manchester looked to London and now Leeds is looking to Manchester”; if local leaders did not bite the bullet, a significant opportunity might be missed.
Mike Regnier “had no axe to grind” on the model, but made clear devolved powers would be in the interest of his 2,700 employees. Making best use of the differing skills across employees in cities such as Leeds and Bradford could have a significant impact on how well they work together. Barry Dodd CBE, founder of Global Service and Manufacturing Group, chipped in, saying that from a business perspective, the region was “a great place to invest”, and that the Yorkshire brand has “real value”.
Ultimately, the future of Yorkshire devolution will depend on the mood of the region’s leaders. As Devo Question Time went on, WYCA leaders were locked in a room deciding on what to do next. The WYCA’s position may be hinted at in Cllr Lewis’s measured pessimism – “let’s take what’s on the table, ‘leadership’ isn’t a top priority for residents when door knocking.” The business minded see devolution as a chance to employ strategic planning, take control of some resources, integrate education and employment policies, and tailor growth strategies to the region. Others see a bigger opportunity for greater democracy and social justice – whether that is through an elected assembly, citizens’ panels, or one idea that surfaced on Thursday; regional representation in the Lords. The devo deals to date have certainly been the former, though that’s not to say citizens aren’t now being engaged to some extent, in Greater Manchester, for example.
Yorkshire localism has been seriously pushed by the Yorkshire Party (formerly Yorkshire First) since 2014, and Diana Wallis, Yorkshire Party Spokesperson and former Lib Dem MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber was “disappointed at the second-rate devolution” on offer. Ask Yorkshire people what they want (and the Electoral Commission have) and they opt for a Yorkshire-wide solution. Combining strong leadership with a devolution process that engages and excites the population was a recurring message on the night, and that looks to be the task at hand. With a strong identity and sense of place, Yorkshire could have a lot to gain from devolution. Getting started is the hard bit.
Editor’s note: Since Yorkshire Devo Question Time, West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Chair, Cllr Peter Box, has written to Sajid Javid with a renewed devolution ask.
Devo Question Time: Birmingham and Liverpool will be on 2nd March and 9th March respectively. Register for your place here.
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