What to do about devolution in Yorkshire?

Tom Forth,

Back in March I got an invitation from the Institute for Government and The British Academy to chat about devolution in Yorkshire, in Sheffield.

Normally I’d go to this kind of thing — I always try and support bodies in London that hold events in the North, and Sheffield is fantastically well-connected to Birmingham. But March and April were extremely busy for us, and I only had a few days notice, so I couldn’t make it.

But I did get a list of questions that would guide the discussion, so I sent ahead my answers. And now that the report is out, I’m sharing what I said.

1. What powers should be devolved to Yorkshire?

I think that John Prescott’s devolved administrations were a good model for fixing devolved powers within the UK. The centre was unwilling to release enough power to tempt people, and they insisted on a referendum. This made the project almost impossible to sell to the public. I tried. It didn't go well.

Regional assemblies were rejected in the North-East. Yorkshire never got the chance to vote, but I suspect that we would have said no too, by a smaller margin. I have written about Yorkshire and the North’s history of saying no here and we undoubtedly share some of the blame on this.

Perhaps a better question is “what powers is the UK government in London willing to devolve to Yorkshire?”. The Leeds City Region devolution ask was sensible, ambitious, and would have worked. It asked for too much from central government (who refused to publicly outline their red lines) and was rejected. We cannot continue to waste time like this.

2. What can help spur economic growth in the region?

I have written about this at length. My best recent summary argues that “The North needs better transport, more research and development, and a share of national institutions to succeed economically”. Recent work that I have done on the impact of the BBC moving 10% of its staff to Manchester proves this . (Well, it might do. I'll stop making ridiculous claims when people show me I'm wrong).

Other work that I have done has informed, and been hugely improved upon by, IPPR North. They are especially good on R&D and Transport spending. Although I don’t always agree with them in other areas such as inclusive growth and focusing beyond city regions, I greatly admire the job that they’re doing.

3. What governance model is most suitable in this region?

The governance that is most suitable for the most people of Yorkshire is the one which is the UK government in London is willing to give power to. Currently that is city regions with elected Mayors.

4. How do the people of Yorkshire want to be governed?

There are some people in Yorkshire who envy Scotland and Wales’ devolution model and would love for it to be repeated in Yorkshire. I think that they perform an important role in debates about UK decentralisation. I have donated to The Yorkshire Party in the past to assist them and may do so again.

But I see much more activity and quiet commitment to change in the cities of the West Riding. Sheffield and Leeds’ City Region deals and offers were the most advanced and most seriously promoted by local leaders. They had a clear vision for how, as part of a larger Northern conurbation centred on Manchester, the North could demand and attract the investment it desperately needs to improve its productivity and pay more of its own way within the UK.

They were the only deals serious about giving the North of England, including Yorkshire, a loud voice within the UK.

 

But, to my enormous frustration, I must admit that most of the people of Yorkshire want to be governed exactly as they are now. As long as they can send their representatives to London, collect their pensions and benefits from public services paid for by London, and pay as little tax as possible while doing so, they'll keep moaning but won't vote for change.

I think that much of rural Yorkshire’s new-found support for a Yorkshire devolution settlement is about holding back its city regions, in particular Leeds, from succeeding and taking a lead on devolution. Yorkshire's conservatives and Conservatives have long held back economic development so that they retain their importance in rural Yorkshire.

Much of Yorkshire wants to be subservient to the UK government in London, reliant on its cash, and left alone to spend it. Cities like Leeds and Sheffield are exceptions and should be allowed to lead on devolution.

5. Devolution deals are based on ‘functional economic area’. Is this the right approach?

This is what is on offer from the UK government. It is what will now go forward in Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham. Because of that, it is the right approach.

 

I have given similar answers to questions one, three, and five. I’d like to clarify on them.

I would like to live in a French-style Republic, as part of the European Union, with regional assemblies and city mayors, as in France. Knowing that is not of much value, because it is never going to happen in the UK.

Asking the people of Yorkshire what they want in terms of devolution and governance is pretty similar. Our views don’t matter that much. I’ve done enough similar exercises to this to know that.

And so, in the absence of a true force for change like peaceful Irish Republicans, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP, what matters is what the UK government will allow. George Osborne was brave and correct to push for Metro Mayors. I congratulate every city region that took advantage, and I am excited to vote in one tomorrow. It is the first time in my life that my vote will count for anything and I have high hopes, no matter what the outcome.

 

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