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Government / Local politics

We mustn't let calls for Yorkshire-wide devolution wreck the hard-won Sheffield City Region deal

Six months out from the first metro mayor elections in May 2017, and momentum is starting to build in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Liverpool City Region – with high-profile candidates putting themselves forward for the new roles in those cities, and both the Conservatives and Labour using the recent conference season to herald their respective mayoral hopefuls.

In the Sheffield City Region, however, there has been little sign of this kind of impetus. Thirteen months after its devolution deal was first announced, not a single candidate from a major party has come forward to stand in the city region’s mayoral election next year. And local leaders have continued to question whether they should even have to introduce a metro mayor full-stop – despite the communities secretary Sajid Javid stating explicitly that this would continue to be a “real red line” for progressing with devolution deals.

As such, a sense of uncertainty and malaise has developed around the Sheffield City Region deal, reflected in the renewed calls in recent weeks for the deal to be scrapped altogether in favour a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal, which would include a mayor for the whole county. Supporters of this approach – who are rumoured to include Northern Powerhouse minister Andrew Percy – claim it would give Yorkshire the “biggest and best devolution deal in Britain”, preserve the county’s identity and “brand”, be “fair to all”, and enable the county to compete nationally and internationally.

However, there are a number of reasons why a “One Yorkshire” devolution deal would a bad idea for places and people across the county – and why continued calls for this approach could ultimately derail the hard-won progress on devolution made thus far in Sheffield City Region.

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For a start, a county-wide deal would fly in the face of one of the fundamental aims of the devolution agenda – boosting the economies of England’s major city regions by giving them more of the powers they need to drive growth. The economy of Yorkshire does not function on a county-wide basis. It is the major urban hubs of Leeds and Sheffield, and to a lesser extent Hull, that are the key generators of growth and jobs in the county, which is why the government’s devolution agenda has been focused on city-regions rather than bigger geographical areas.

But nor are these city regions islands. They play a crucial role in creating and providing jobs and opportunities for people living in neighbouring towns and rural areas. Indeed, people who work in Leeds city centre travel on average more than 30 kilometres to do so. As such, a Yorkshire-wide deal would not reflect the county’s economic geography, and would most likely hamper growth in its main economic hubs, resulting in fewer opportunities for people living across the county.

Secondly, a “One Yorkshire” devolution deal would lead to an inappropriate form of governance, in which a county mayor would struggle to make the investment decisions needed on key drivers of economic growth such as housing, transport and skills. Political expediency would undoubtedly dictate that the mayor would have to treat every place in the county equally when it comes to investment and political focus.

This would result in jam-spreading of scarce resources and political capital, rather than investment and attention being prioritised in the areas that would produce the greatest impact – again, ultimately harming the economic prospects of people and places across the county. This was a problem that Yorkshire Forward, the county’s former regional development agency, was never able to resolve.

And while campaigners for a Yorkshire-wide deal argue that it would prevent Leeds and Sheffield from dominating the rest of the county, the reality is that, for Yorkshire to be prosperous, it needs its big cities to be more dominant not less. If Leeds and Sheffield are not economically successful then the country will be less economically successful.

Moreover, supporters of a Yorkshire-wide deal may have over-estimated the new government’s appetite for agreeing new devolution deals, or renegotiating deals already on the table. For example, when leaders in the North East failed to reach consensus on how to progress with their deal in September, the government did not step in to salvage the agreement. While that deal may be resurrected on a smaller geographical basis, it is unlikely it will be done in time for next year’s elections, and not as a result of active government intervention.

As such, if calls for a Yorkshire-wide deal serve to undermine the devolution deal in place for Sheffield City Region, the more likely outcome would be that the devolution agenda would bypass Yorkshire entirely for the foreseeable future. That would mean that its cities and towns would fall behind the likes of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands in the coming years. This possibility is all the more worrying given a recent story in the Financial Times which quotes Andrew Percy as saying that those city regions with mayors will get the lion’s share of future local growth funding.

No one should underestimate the political difficulties that local leaders in the Sheffield City Region have overcome to form a combined authority and agree an initial devolution deal, nor the progress that has been on the ground in recent years. Now local leaders must avoid being distracted by calls to start anew on a county-wide deal, and instead focus on doing all they can to get the current deal over the line in time for May 2017 – otherwise millions of people across the city region could miss out on the advantages that devolution could bring.

Brian Semple is press manager at the Centre for Cities think tank. This is an edited version of an article first posted on the think tank’s blog

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