In 2019, the electoral landscape of Yorkshire and the Humber changed dramatically. Nine Labour seats went to the Tories, who won the most votes in the region for the first time since 1983. People voted Conservative partly because of Brexit, but the Conservatives were also perceived to have a more positive message for regenerating and empowering the north. The budget in March was an opportunity for the government to deliver what was promised, repairing some of the damage a decade of austerity has wreaked on communities.
And, while the budget mainly dealt with the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, it also included a devolution deal for West Yorkshire, promising new powers and investment worth £1.8bn over 30 years. It follows a previous breakthrough in January on a similar deal for South Yorkshire devolution.
These small steps forward for devolution represent a welcome shift of power away from Whitehall. Both deals come at a time when devolution is proving its worth as metro mayors, and local government across England, are supporting the community responses to coronavirus. From the Liverpool City Region’s free school bus travel to Greater Manchester’s package of support for its creative sector, metro mayors and councils are using their powers to help their communities cope with this enormous challenge.
This response is yet another demonstration of the power and capability of local government. It adds to the wealth of evidence which shows that local government is better placed to deliver a broad range of economic and social policy. It shows that we should move further in devolving powers to places already with devolution deals, and move faster in creating the right devolved settlements for places that do not yet have one.
But the government’s approach to devolution is deeply flawed. Whitehall decides who participates, which powers are devolved, and how much investment is available. Local communities are dependent on the benevolence of ministers, rather than being able to decide what devolution looks like for them. Instead, the government expects local communities to operate within a straitjacket entirely decided by Whitehall. Many places have been left out of the devolution process of the basis of criteria that few understand. The “framework” that would provide clarity and transparency has been repeatedly kicked into the long grass.
By adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, the government is forcing places into a city region model that often doesn’t work for them. This is particularly relevant in Yorkshire, where no one place dominates, and the county relies on the vibrancy of the smallest village as well as the biggest cities. Unwilling to adopt something new for Yorkshire, the government prefers to fragment the county.
Right across Yorkshire, communities have significant assets or opportunities. For example, offshore wind manufacturing in the Humber estuary and agritech in North Yorkshire which, properly supported, could lift up local economies, create well-paid jobs of the future and contribute to sustainable economic growth across the country. But currently places like Hull and Scarborough are locked out of this prosperity because of low pay, low skills, and poor quality transport links. And while South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire are securing devolution deals to tackle these challenges, Hull and North Yorkshire have no immediate prospect of receiving such powers or investment. Places have been left on the sidelines, with little in the way of empowerment to deliver the change they want.
Yorkshire needs more than separate devolution deals handed down by Whitehall. The deals for both South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire needn’t be unpicked, but could form the foundations for unifying region-wide devolution that ensures every part of Yorkshire can benefit from ‘levelling up’ – similar to proposals which the region has previously developed. The priority should be extending devolution to the rest of Yorkshire, and securing the additional powers and investment needed. But the government remains against such an approach, preferring to split the region up at significant economic cost for Yorkshire, the north, and the UK as a whole.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen government in a state of flux and over the next few months as the coronavirus crisis recedes, there is likely to be a major reset of policy. The government should include its approach to devolution in that reset. For if it is serious about levelling up, the government will need to change course, stop the fragmentation, and ensure that every part of Yorkshire benefits from devolution – together.