Devolution – United we stand, Divided we fall

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This week, it appears, saw the demise of the (certainly for me) detested South Yorkshire Combined Authority Devolution Deal.  It broke up in acrimony when, after the non-South Yorkshire councils had already withdrawn, two of the 4 South Yorkshire authorities, Barnsley and Doncaster, also pulled out of the deal.  This has led to some rather un-comradely languange and rhetoric between the Labour leaders of the four authorities.

The final straw, I suggest, was the finalised plans for the route of HS2, which Sheffield had lobbied to have changed from a HS2 stop at Meadowhall to one in the city centre.  In the end they got neither – all the got was a spur (essentially the same line) linking HS2 to Sheffield and no HS2 stop at all in South Yorkshire.  In fact worse still, the route will now go through areas which has been hitherto spared – including a brand new housing estate near Doncaster.  In effect these communities would have all the disruption without any of the perceived bonuses.

For South Yorkshire, the proposed HS2 line is a disaster and could be economically devastating and suck yet more economic growth away from the region towards Leeds and of course London.  But that is for another post.

I celebrate the demise of this deal.  I’ve written before about how this deal is the Emperors new clothes of devolution deals.  Steve Houghton, the Barnsley council leader and Ros Jones, the Doncaster Mayor, now want to throw their lot in with the other authorities in Yorkshire as part of a proposed One Yorkshire deal.  On the face of it, if they can all unite behind this (including Sheffield and Rotherham who, at time of writing, still seem determined to press on with their own version of a deal) this could be an incredibly powerful and important way forward to regenerating Yorkshire.

Imagine the 20 authorities of Yorkshire uniting behind real devolution – uniting a population greater than Scotland, an area greater than London and an economy twice that of Wales.  As a region politically it would be second only to London – swamping the deals already agreed in Manchester, Liverpool, the North East, the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire and the West of England. In this lies the two great problems of actually getting this off the ground.

First there is the problem of Westminster.  They are totally against the idea of a United Yorkshire deal.  They have tried all sorts of threats and tricks to make the South Yorkshire deal go ahead and have said they will not countenance a deal across the whole of Yorkshire.  Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State has been categorical in this and has made threats about walking away should this continue.

The second is the problems associated with the leaders of 20 disparate authorities actually coming to some sort of unified voice.  My worry is that the One Yorkshire deal will go the same way as the South Yorkshire one because of infighting and council leaders being insular about their objectives without thinking about the big picture.  Already the leaders of Harrogate and North Yorkshire are showing signs of wilting under the rhetoric of Westminster.

If Yorkshire can speak with one voice I am certain the issue of Westminster can be defeated.  Met with a determined, united front of 20 authorities speaking as one, there is no way a Westminster mandarin or politician can stop a deal taking place.  In fact I believe there is an opportunity here to get more from Westminster – let us as a region solve our problems rather than a remote bureaucracy in Westminster.  Of course whilst Westminster detects any bickering or disunity it will use this to try and lever the region apart.  It does not want an entity the size of Yorkshire making a success out of devolution.  It wants smaller regions with smaller powers which can be easily controlled.

This is the first step in a long road to, hopefully, a Yorkshire with greater self-determination.  It will not be easy and it will not be quick.  There are many roadblocks in our way – some placed by Westminster, some self-inflicted vested interests inside our region who cannot see the possible end-game.  The only way we can succeed is if we united and speak as one.  As the old adage goes – united we stand, divided we fall.

I have written to the Barnsley Chronicle, Sheffield Star and Yorkshire Post summarising much of what I have written about here – here is the text of my letter…

It is fitting that, on the 20th anniversary of the referendums in Scotland and Wales which led to devolved assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff, the death knell can be heard for the ‘devolution deal’ for South Yorkshire.  I’ve criticised Steve Houghton in these pages in the past for pursuing this deal as I felt he was selling Barnsley and South Yorkshire short.  It would therefore be churlish of me not to congratulate him on standing up to pressure from his colleagues in Sheffield and Rotherham as well as threats and intimidation from the Secretary of State Sajid Javid.

To all intents and purposes this deal, which would have led to just £30million a year being devolved to South Yorkshire – way less than the money cut from our local authority budgets since 2010 – is dead.  If a mayoral election still takes place next spring it will be for a mayor responsible only for the buses.  However, the mettle of Steve Houghton and the other council leaders across Yorkshire will now be tested. 

In Yorkshire we have a population greater than Scotland, an economy twice that of Wales and an area greater than London yet we have the powers of none of these – reliant on Westminster for everything.  The only way we can progress as a region is to work together as a region.  The One Yorkshire vision is the only game in town and the leaders of Sheffield and Rotherham must get on board.  The threats and intimidation coming from Westminster – who realise that Yorkshire working together as a region is a massive threat to their power base hence their attempt to divide us – can be seen off only if we speak with one unequivocal voice.

However I would go further with the scope of the ultimate devolution deal and the accountability structures. This is where I still have doubts with Cllr Houghton and his fellow council leaders – I’d love to be proved wrong.  The leaders of Scotland, Wales and London are held to account by people with a real democratic mandate. I fear that, should the One Yorkshire vision come off, the ultimate ‘mayor’ will be accountable to the council leaders – an indirectly elected group of individuals pulling the strings.  I want to see a Yorkshire which takes control of its future not just its buses.

One Yorkshire can be driven by the amazing brand that is Yorkshire – recognised across the world for its excellence – as well as the economies of scale and negotiating power we would have as a region of over 5 million rather than a collection of 4 or 5 council authorities.  Through this we can transform our region into an economic, artistic and intellectual powerhouse.  This can only happen if we speak with one voice and employ something we Yorkshire folk are famous for towards those who would stand in our way – good old Yorkshire grit, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness.

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Wayne Chadburn

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