With Brexit dominating the political agenda in Westminster, the government is unable to fashion a coherent domestic agenda to tackle many of the challenges facing Britain. But with national government seemingly paralysed, local authority leaders in Yorkshire have developed an ambitious devolution proposal to address the diverse needs of a historic county, to tackle economic inequality, and lift up growth, productivity and wages.
The ‘One Yorkshire’ proposal not only offers £12bn worth of additional economic growth and 200,000 new jobs for the county, but also significant benefits for the north and the UK as a whole. As the Yorkshire devolution agreement submission states: “The Northern Powerhouse will remain incomplete until a thriving Yorkshire enjoying devolved powers and budgets is at its heart”. The “prolonged absence of a devolution agreement for Yorkshire … [would] be a major obstacle to achieving national growth ambitions”, it adds. The proposal secured support from 18 of the 20 local authorities, uniting politicians across the political divide in a way no previous devolution proposal for Yorkshire has managed.
In spite of this widespread support, the government has rejected the One Yorkshire proposal, arguing it does not meet the government’s criteria for devolution. But as local authority leaders in Yorkshire, councillors Judith Blake and Carl Les, point out: “Yorkshire was told by government to come up with proposals which enjoy widespread support. We did. And now the government has said no to those too.” Instead the government wishes to begin discussions on a ‘different, localist approach’. But it is not entirely clear that any other alternative would secure the same widespread support from local authority leaders as One Yorkshire does.
James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has indicated he favours a number of deals, covering the Leeds city region, Hull and Humber, and York and North Yorkshire separately. This would split Yorkshire up, ignoring the identity it has not only as one county but also as a collection of cities, towns, villages and hamlets. A One Yorkshire combined authority would be successful in reflecting the importance of local identities in its governance structures. The One Yorkshire agreement submission explicitly recognises this, claiming there is “public support for mayoral arrangements to align with an existing identity which complements – rather than competes – with their powerful allegiance to village, town or city”. A Yorkshire mayor would be “a powerful symbol of common endeavour within the region”. The importance of ensuring local identities are reflected in governance structures cannot be ignored when past local government reorganisations have foundered on exactly this issue, and in a way that still influences political discourse in certain parts of Yorkshire such as the East Riding.
Fragmenting Yorkshire into a number of combined authorities could result in devolution working for the big cities, but not the towns and villages. The Public Accounts Committee warned two years ago against ‘local centralism’ where ‘power and decision-making sits in the dominant city heart of a combined authority‘. Brokenshire’s preferences on Yorkshire devolution indicates the government has failed to heed those concerns. At a time when northern towns feel ignored at a national level, a devolution deal entrenching that at a local level would not live up to the full possibilities of the Northern Powerhouse – or of devolution as a whole. Of course, there remains a risk that the big cities could dominate a One Yorkshire combined authority. But the towns and villages of Yorkshire are more likely to be adequately represented in a single Yorkshire combined authority where no one city dominates in quite the same way.
Despite government opposition, local authority leaders in Yorkshire should make it clear that One Yorkshire is the only deal that will work, and the only deal that the public will support. The benefits of a unifying Yorkshire-wide devolution are too great to give up in favour of a series of divisive, small-scale, city-dominated combined authorities.