Yorkshire and the Humber is by far England’s largest county and, with 5.3 million people at the last census, boasts a larger population than Scotland. It is a region with its own culture, its own dialect and a fierce, almost nationalist pride in its history, particularly on the sports field. It has the most successful cricket club in the country, is recognised by FIFA as the birthplace of club football and, if it were its own country at the 2012 Olympics, would have placed 12th in the medal table, above Brazil, Kenya and Jamaica. It boasts world renowned artists, playwrights, authors, entrepreneurs, tycoons and, thanks to Marks & Spencer’s, ASDA and Morrisons, has changed the face of British retail.
Yet for all its unique and vital contribution to Britain (there’s no bias here I promise), the lack of devolution in ‘God’s Own Country’ seems conspicuous. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had it for decades, and more recently the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the Tees Valley. There are plans to introduce a devolution model in Yorkshire, confirmed at a meeting of councillors last week, and Sajid Javid said in April he hoped to finalise arrangements this year. However, as of September nothing concrete has been agreed. Some might suggest it is time to talk about ‘Yexit’, or even a ‘King in the North’?
Devolution has worked well politically for the Conservative Party in the last few months. Problems in the health service in Scotland and Wales can be blamed on the SNP and Labour respectively, with the Government only having to take responsibility for the inevitable winter beds crisis in England. What’s more, the introduction of metro mayors precipitated surprise Tory wins in the West Midlands and the Tees Valley, areas in which they also polled well during the otherwise disastrous general election.
Of course, devolution is not as simple as handing over power. Negotiations are complicated in Yorkshire by different deals with different cities, as well as numerous county and city councils that have not worked together properly in decades. What’s more, there would seem little appetite in Westminster for a system of governance comparable in complexity to Scotland.
Yorkshire not securing devolution may seem trivial to all those outside the White Rose, but in fact it is a window into how the Government is approaching one of the most significant policy areas to survive the transition from the Cameron-Osborne era: the Northern Powerhouse. Despite its architect being shown the door before Mrs May had her feet under the desk at Number 10, George Osborne’s attempt to redress inequality between North and South, and London and the rest of the country, has been retained. It is useful for ministers to reference when challenged on the North / South or London / rest of the country divide, and helps them gain traction among a section of the electorate that feels increasingly disconnected from Westminster.
Recent decisions have not gone down well in the North. The choice to abandon plans for the electrification of the Trans Pennine railway, cutting journey times between Leeds and Manchester significantly, was heavily criticised, particularly as Crossrail 2 was approved for London at great expense. The focus on HS2 is not universally popular either, with many in the North claiming this will do little to bring investment and only serve to further the brain drain.
This has been followed by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s assertion that ‘The success of Northern transport depends on the North itself’. While the sentiment that Northerners can sort this out better than their southern counterparts will ring true among many of my kin, this is difficult to do when investment and political power are not available.
Some areas of the North are still amongst the most deprived in the country, with South Yorkshire in particular still reeling from the dismantling of its key industry in the 1980s. Last week an IPPR report claimed the UK economy was “the most geographically unbalanced in Europe”. The Local Government Association estimated billions of pounds worth of growth were being put at risk by deadlock on devolution, such as that seen in Yorkshire. Figures released by IPPR North in July suggested the North would have had an extra £59 billion if investment was commensurate with London over the last decade.
Despite its architect being shown the door before Mrs May had her feet under the desk at Number 10, George Osborne’s attempt to redress inequality between North and South, and London and the rest of the country, has been retained.
A report in November 2016 did attempt to detail the Government’s strategy on the Northern Powerhouse. However, many promises of support were small in scale, such as for Yorkshire to host matches in the 2021 World Cup, and some important commitments for infrastructure spending haven’t yet come to fruition, such as the Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy. News of jobs or investment in the North are frequently cited by Government as evidence of the strategy’s success but this has not allayed the concerns of some political leaders in the North. Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham is a case in point; he criticised the Government in July, saying “it is hard to have confidence that they will deliver longer term agreements made to the North.” A third Minister for the Northern Powerhouse in as many years has not helped matters.
So what can be done to keep the commitment alive? Investment is top of the wish list; with many calling for better rail facilities across the North in particular. Making national politics less Westminster-centric, moving Select Committees away from London for instance, has also been floated previously, though this seems unlikely at present. While stopping short of the full scale devolution seen in Scotland and Wales, a transformational budget for infrastructure, such as that Northern Ireland recently received, would go some way to backing up the Government’s ambitious rhetoric on this topic.
Many people would like to see the Northern Powerhouse become a symbol of a successful post-Brexit Britain. The criticism of Brussels often focuses on its distant, enclosed bureaucracy, so an effort to devolve power closer to local communities and spreading wealth more evenly around the country has the potential to resonate politically. Andy Burnham even praised George Osborne’s focus on the Northern Powerhouse in the wake of the EU referendum, describing him as “an astute politician” for noticing the same alienation from politics in the North that contributed to the Brexit result. The opportunities in the North in a range of sectors are sizeable, but require investment and concerted political support to fully realise.
If there was any consolation from the 2017 general election for the Conservative Party, it was its performance in the North. This was built largely on strong support for Brexit, and a feeling that Labour in office had abandoned its roots.
However, a perceived failure to deliver on promises of a transfer of power, coupled with a lack of necessary investment, could quickly erode any goodwill the Conservatives have built up.