1. Governance
August 1, 2017updated 28 Jul 2021 2:21pm

Yorkshire might finally be getting a devolution deal. But what’s taken so long?

By Jonn Elledge

Back in December 2014, when Boris Johnson was still running London and metro mayors were little more than a glint in George Osborne’s eye, the government announced its second city devolution deal.

The lucky recipient was the Sheffield City Region: the former South Yorkshire metropolitan county, plus some chunks of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The deal was hailed as a new start by then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who – purely coincidentally – happened to be MP for Sheffield Hallam.

At the time, my main question was what had happened to the other city region carved out of the West Riding. Clegg had promised that Leeds, like Sheffield, would have a deal before Christmas. No such deal ever appeared.

And, in the months that followed, the Sheffield deal, which Clegg had unveiled with such fanfare, slid off the agenda too. Last May, six English regions elected mayors for the first time. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that none of them were in Yorkshire – the Tees Valley region straddles the ancient boundary between England’s largest county and county Durham, to its north.

But that region is more associated with the North East these days. And what is true is that Yorkshire was by and large left behind by the devolution revolution. The metropolitan areas of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol all got deals, powers and mayors. Leeds and Sheffield got nothing.

That might – might – be changing. From the York Press:

County leaders met in York last week, and have today announced a “coalition of the willing” is now working towards “a single ambitious devolution deal”.

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York leaders were at the meeting, as well as those from North Yorkshire and all its seven districts, the East Riding, Leeds, Hull, Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.

In a joint statement the leaders said: “Today is Yorkshire Day and therefore it seems right to talk today about our county, its ambitions and our identity.”

That’s not quite all of Yorkshire. Sheffield and Rotherham are apparently still looking at a separate deal; plus, of course, a few slivers of the old county are now in the Tees Valley or Greater Manchester regions. But it’s most of it. Here’s a map.

The pale area is the new Yorkshire; the red area Sheffield and Doncaster. Wakefield, Simon Jeffrey of the Centre for Cities points out, has yet to sign up to the Yorkshire-wide bid. Image: Wikimedia/CityMetric.

Have a look at what you could have won

It’s worth asking, though, why this hasn’t happened before. Other regions stuffed with mutually antagonistic councils, not naming any Liverpool City Regions in particular, managed to pull it together to get devolution deals.

And Yorkshire was hardly short of proposals. When the government’s September 2015 deadline for devolution bids arrived, no fewer than four Yorkshire proposals were on the table. They were:

  • The Sheffield City Region deal (as described above)
  • The Leeds City Region deal (the five boroughs of West Yorkshire, plus four from North Yorkshire: York, Selby, Harrogate and Craven);
  • The confusingly named YNYER bid, which brought together York, North Yorkshire (in which the City of York unitary authority is an island) and the East Riding;
  • “Greater Yorkshire” (North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, the East Riding, Hull and York).

The City of Hull helpfully made clear that its preference was to be part of the Greater Yorkshire deal, but if that failed it would happily bunk up with the Leeds City Region. In the end, it didn’t need to make any such choice, though, because none of those deals came off. Leeds remains the largest metropolitan area in England without any form of devolution.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong with the Sheffield City Region is easy to explain: Derbyshire took it to court.

The deal, after all, would have given the new mayor powers over services in the Derbyshire borough of Chesterfield. In January, the high court ruled that if South Yorkshire wanted to start annexing bits of neighbouring counties it would need to do a lot more consultation than it had already done. Result: no deal, no mayoral election, no mayor.

By that point, according to the Guardian’s northern editor Helen Pidd,

“Momentum [was] building behind calls for the SCR proposal to be scrapped in favour of a whole-Yorkshire deal. With more than 5 million residents, the four counties of Yorkshire have a bigger population than Scotland and a GDP double that of Wales.”

That implied a sort of greater Greater Yorkshire deal. (Greater Yorkshire, despite its name, had not previously included South Yorkshire, or the Tees Valley, or Saddleworth, come to that, making it a sort of lesser Yorkshire, if we’re honest with ourselves.)

As for Leeds City Region, the problem there seemed to lie well outside the metropolitan area in rural North Yorkshire. The Leeds deal, after all, was expected to cover not just the old metropolitan West Yorkshire, but also York, Craven, Selby and Harrogate. That would cut the population of the rump of North Yorkshire by over 60 per cent – which, no doubt, would have a knock on effect on its budget, powers and so on.

How the Leeds City Region could have carved up Yorkshire. Image: Wikimedia/CityMetric.

North Yorkshire council was understandably not very keen on this – and Tory councillors in the Leeds City Region were not nuts about the fact they’d likely be signing up to a mayoral election which Labour seemed very likely to win.

The result was multiple competing bids on different geographies – and no deal.

Whether this might finally be about to change remains to be seen. Yesterday’s statement of intent does feel like a step forward – but Sheffield and Rotherham are still trying to go their own way. More to the point, with George Osborne out of office, and Brexit dominating everything, it’s not entirely clear that the government have either the bandwidth or the enthusiasm to do any further deals at all.

Still. Even if Yorkshire doesn’t get a devolution deal, or any of the money or power that goes with it, it does at least have its own day to tell itself how brilliant it is. And isn’t that the important thing, really?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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