1. Governance
November 26, 2015updated 28 Jul 2021 2:22pm

Devolution is meant to be about boring practical things. So why do we obsess about identity?

By Jonn Elledge

Please don’t judge me for this, but I’m from Romford. Romford, if you have any sense of it at all, you probably perceive as a land of Tango orange tans and Ben Sherman shirts, and girlfriends yelling, “Leave it Gary, he’s not worth it”. Romford, in other words, is the most Essex place in the universe.

It’s also, as it happens, not in Essex. Hasn’t been since 1965 when, along with a huge swathe of other commuter suburbs, it was transferred into a new and bigger Greater London.

In any realm in which government matters – from planning to transport to policing to skills – it makes sense to manage Romford as a part of the city. Trying to manage, say, housing policies for a swathe of the metropolis from Chelmsford, just because they were part of the same marshy county when King Athelstan popped his clogs, seems absolutely (this is a pun) barking.

And yet, ask most people in Romford where it is, I suspect most of them would still say Essex. Some of them, especially those who elected the area’s selection of UKIP councillors, reject the idea it’s part of London at all.

I mention all this, not just because it’s something I’ve been prone to banging on about for twenty years or more (I never really fitted in back in Romford), but because the same tension is screwing up our entire national debate about devolution. All too often, we make it about Who We Are, instead of How Things Work.

Devolution, at least in the limited form on offer at the moment, should really be a matter of administrative convenience and infrastructure planning. That, though, is quite boring – so everyone would rather talk about identity, instead.

And that’s a problem – because the places people feel an emotional allegiance to, and those that would make good sensible units for economic planning, only rarely match up.

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By way of example, consider Leeds. The largest city in Yorkshire is also the largest in England without any form of devolution deal agreed with the Treasury.

This, you’d think, might be a bit of a disappointment. Manchester and Liverpool and Birmingham and so on are all going to be making at least some of the decisions that affect their residents; but decisions affecting Leeds will still be made by people in London, a fair chunk of whom have never set foot in the place. If I lived in Leeds, I think I’d be annoyed about that.

But no. There are many in the city and its hinterland that are absolutely appalled by the idea they could ever be part of the “Leeds City Region”.

After many conversations like this, which I have thought about for far too long, and far too much, I’ve concluded that I have two problems with this argument.

One is that I’m not convinced traditional counties make the most sensible units of local government. Leeds’ hinterland may be mostly in Yorkshire – but Sheffield’s extends into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and Hull’s across the Humber to Lincolnshire.

A Yorkshire-wide devolution deal would inevitably exclude areas whose prosperity depended on the county’s cities. As a unit of functional economic geography, Yorkshire is useless.

But that’s not the end of the world, and it’s probably still better to make decisions affecting bits of the Sheffield commuter belt in York than to do so in London. Yorkshire’s population is bigger than Scotland’s. A Yorkshire parliament could be made to work.

So here’s the bigger problem: it isn’t going to happen.

The form of devolution on the table is one based on cities and the regions around them. Anyone in Yorkshire who thinks that, by holding out, they will pressure George Osborne into coming back with a deal more to their liking is deluding themselves.

But to many people, that doesn’t matter. Because the wrong deal is worse than no deal at all.

Or, to translate that: it is better to make decisions affecting Bradford or Huddersfield in London than it is to make them in Leeds.

Because people don’t want devolution to be about boring matters like economics or infrastructure. They want it to be about identity. And those places are not part of Leeds.

I sometimes wonder whether the Blair government screwed us over on this one: by treating devolution as a way of placating the angry gods of Celtic nationalism, they made it a symbol of identity, rather than a tool for better government.

Then I remember that arguments about boundaries and identity have been screwing up the world for about as long as anyone can remember. This probably isn’t something that’s going to change any time soon.

Greater London works pretty well, incidentally. It covers the vast majority of one traditional county, hefty chunks of three more, and a slither of a fifth – yet it chugs along pretty nicely, even though no one thinks of Romford as a part of London. Just saying. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric and tweets as @jonnelledge.

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