It’s taken so long and it’s been so close so many times that I’d given up following it.
It was only when I started reading the West Yorkshire Devolution consultation that it really sunk in that it was happening. The deal is done, the details are decided, West Yorkshire will elect a Mayor when we’re clear of this pandemic.
Don’t be fooled by the word consultation. In the UK, for a few good reasons and lots of bad ones, we have to consult on almost everything. It is obviously ludicrous to consult on an agreement that is signed and can’t be changed. You might be tempted not to respond as a result.
But the responses to the consultation will be important in another way. There’s never been an elected Mayor of West Yorkshire before. The first one will be looking for ideas on what to do from the moment they start running. So will their advisors. I bet they’ll read the consultation responses now, and again when they get elected.
A disclaimer: I will probably make a serious mistake at some point in this blog post. That is the problem with dealing with UK politics. We cherish having one of the most complex, nuanced, and flexible political geographies in the world. I hate it. I’d throw it away and start again with something much simpler even if it was bad for a few edge cases. But my opinion is rare, most Britons want to keep what we have now. We have to deal with it.
West Yorkshire is five local authorities (Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Calderdale [largest town Halifax], and Kirklees [largest town Huddersfield]). It already has a Combined Authority which acts on behalf of all five in areas such as transport. The leaders of the five local authorities take turns to lead that.
West Yorkshire is not Leeds City Region. Leeds City Region contains an extra five local authorities (Selby, Barnsley, York, Harrogate, Craven [largest town Skipton]) and has a local enterprise partnership (LEP). The LEP is an unelected body that spends central government and EU money in Leeds City Region.
To confuse matters, Leeds City Region, in collaboration with The West Yorkshire Combined Authority, negotiated and agreed a devolution deal with the UK government in 2015 that would have included an elected Mayor. Would that have absorbed the West Yorkshire Combined Authority? I don’t know. Since the deal was blocked at the last minute by the UK government after squeals from local Tory MPs worried about homes being built on the greenbelt it’s probably not worth my time to find out.
As long as there’s a Mayor, a bad devolution deal is better than no devolution deal.
Whatever failings, limitations, and underwhelming details there are in the devolution deal, they can and will be fixed by an elected Mayor of West Yorkshire. We’ve seen it in Greater Manchester, Teesside, The West Midlands, Liverpool City Region, Greater London, and more. We will see the same in West Yorkshire.
The Mayor will command local and national media respect. They will demand central government time. They will have the power to convene all communities and all sectors of the economy. They themselves will start the process of fixing what is wrong with the devolution deal. If you're not happy with something that's happening in West Yorkshire, you'll have a person to complain to. If you're polite, they will listen and act.
The good news is that the West Yorkshire devolution deal is a good devolution deal. It covers all the major areas where West Yorkshire needs more control to succeed. Finance, skills, housing, transport, innovation, and more.
The devolution agreement is long and complicated. Ten thousand words and a reading age of 22. That is probably inevitable for a document that has taken well over five years of exhausting negotiation to make happen.
It’s a great achievement. Even a bad devolution deal is better than no devolution deal. This is a good deal. The first Mayor of West Yorkshire will have the chance to learn from the Mayors that are proving so successful in the rest of England and to contribute to improving this deal and other deals in the future. West Yorkshire has so much untapped potential, much of it because it does not work together well. A Mayor will help to fix this. As every candidate already knows, their job is going to be very difficult. To understand just how difficult, ask any of them where they’ll put their office, open a bag of popcorn, and enjoy the fireworks. I can’t wait.