1. Governance
September 13, 2016

Three reasons a Yorkshire devolution deal probably isn't going to happen

By Jonn Elledge

The ancient English county of Yorkshire contains more people than Scotland, and an economy worth twice that of Wales. Consequently, there are those who believe that it deserves its own political identity.

There’s a Yorkshire Party (formerly Yorkshire First), which aspires to be a sort of SNP-of-the-dales. And, because no English devolution can ever take place without involving at least two warring factions, there’s also the Yorkshire Devolution Movement, which used this year’s Yorkshire Day (1 August, of course) to launch its campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament.

Both are, I fear, whistling in the wind.

There’s nothing inherently ridiculous about the idea of a Yorkshire-based devolution deal, of course: more than 5m people live in the county, which is more than enough to constitute a small country, let alone a regional government. We might even have had a Yorkshire Parliament already, if only proposals for regional assemblies hadn’t been so comprehensively shot down in 2004.

So why my cynicism? Am I just another uppity Londoner trying to keep god’s own country in its place?

Well, possibly. (I do hate parkin.) But I have three more solid reasons, too.

It’s the economy, stupid

The current round of devolution deals, which was started by George Osborne and which may or may not continue now he’s history, has generally focused on economically coherent units: city-regions or smaller counties, whose identities come as much from commuting patterns as from boundaries dating back to King Alfred.

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Two deals didn’t do this. The North East deal covered almost an entire government region (Teeside got its own deal). The East Anglian one originally included both the M11-Cambridge corridor (in which the population looks south to London), and Norfolk and Suffolk (in which they don’t).

Both have since collapsed. That suggests it’s easier to get diverse councils to put their differences aside and agree on a deal when they can see themselves as a single economic unit, with something to gain from working together. It’s far from clear Yorkshire does.

A block in the pipe

So far, the most visible result of the campaign for Yorkshire-wide devolution has been a negative one: to stop Leeds from getting a deal.

Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool are all getting set for their own metro mayors next year. Leeds isn’t, because no one in Yorkshire could agree on what a Yorkshire deal should look like.

The Labour-led West Yorkshire councils – Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield and so forth – got behind a Leeds City Region deal. But local Tories, frightened of handing local power to the Labour opposition, lined up with the more rural North Yorkshire and East Riding councils to call for a “Greater Yorkshire” arrangement, which would have subsumed Leeds into a single deal covering most of historic Yorkshire.

Result: deadlock, and no deal.

The problem of Sheffield

Actually, that’s not quite true: one bit of Yorkshire may very well get a devolution deal, and is working with bits of neighbouring counties to get it. The Sheffield City Region doesn’t only include Sheffield proper, but the neighbouring cities with which it once shared South Yorkshire (Doncaster, Rotherham, Barnsley etc.), as well as the parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire that are economically connected to it.

Not everyone is happy about this. Derbyshire County Council is a bit miffed about being cruelly abandoned by Chesterfield and its lovely business rates, so is threatening legal action to block the deal.

Nonetheless, there’s a pretty good chance that the Sheffield City Region will happen. A large and heavily populated bit of Yorkshire has decided to pursue its own devolution deal in partnership with places that aren’t in Yorkshire at all.

Traitors to the rose, the lot of them.

So – the Yorkshire Party and the Yorkshire Devolution Movement can hang on for an all-Yorkshire deal all they like. But it probably isn’t going to happen, probably wouldn’t work if it did, and anyway a chunk of the county has made other plans.

Given all that one has to wonder – was it really worth leaving poor old Leeds out in the cold?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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