Yorkshire Devolution, is the time now?

Yorkshire devolution has been discussed for more than 15 years. While Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Liverpool City Region and others have fully-fledged devolution deals, Yorkshire has so far not been able to secure one.

A new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State may offer the opportunity to move forward, but what are the realistic chances of this happening, what are the benefits to Yorkshire and what might happen next?

How did we get here?

In 2004 John Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister, abandoned plans for devolution via regional assemblies after suffering a heavy referendum defeat on proposals for a North East regional assembly. Little changed until the Coalition, with the Localism Act of 2011 and political pressure – led by George Osborne – for real progress. The first devolution deal was signed in 2014 with Greater Manchester. Several others followed and a swathe of Metro Mayors were elected in 2017.

The post-2014 devolution deals were characterised by collaboration and respect, both between different local authority partners and between local and central government. This allowed Greater Manchester to quickly reach a deal which has been subsequently built on. Tees Valley and Tyneside also sealed deals. Ben Houchen was elected as the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley in 2017 and Jamie Driscoll as the Labour Mayor for North of the Tyne in 2019.

Yorkshire – an area of 5.3 million people and 20 local authorities – has not yet achieved this level of progress. The Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (SCRCA) signed a limited devolution deal in 2015 and, after a legal challenge, elected Dan Jarvis as Mayor in 2018.

The Northern Powerhouse was launched in 2015, aiming to “transform Northern growth, rebalance the country’s economy and establish the North as a global powerhouse.” Yorkshire councils have been heavily involved in the project.

In parallel with Sheffield, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) proposed a much more ambitious devolution plan. WYCA, which includes Bradford and Leeds, had 27 “devolution asks” and took a tough negotiating stance with Whitehall. Some have suggested the proposal was too tough, and WYCA over-estimated the strength of its hand. Others point out that at least one local Conservative MP has admitted to lobbying against the proposals. Whatever the reason, their submission never received an official response and was considered dead by 2017, as were three other proposals from other parts of Yorkshire.

Since 2017 the focus has been on developing an ambitious “One Yorkshire” deal to cover the whole of the historic county. This has gained the support of most – but not all – of Yorkshire’s local authorities. Then-Secretary of State James Brokenshire rejected the One Yorkshire proposals in February 2019, saying “they do not meet our devolution criteria.” Brokenshire suggested that the Government remained open to discussions about areas within Yorkshire, but not for the whole county.

With Boris Johnson taking over the reins as Prime Minister and Robert Jenrick appointed as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the challenge will be to break this impasse and find a way to deliver a devolution which all sides can agree to.

Benefits of devolution for growth in Yorkshire

Although it is early days for the English localism agenda, there are some strong indicators that devolution deals could help boost Yorkshire’s local economy.

Internationally, cities and regions with more local powers over taxing and spending also tend to perform better. England, one of the most centralised countries in the Western world, also has one of the largest wealth gaps between its capital city and its regions.

It is commonly known that London and the South East receive far more transport infrastructure investment per head than the rest of the country. Some suggest this is because London schemes offer a better Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR). But as analyst Tom Forth points out, this is simply untrue. Successive governments have chosen to invest in London projects with lower BCRs while ignoring provincial projects with better returns on investment. If decision-making on transport investment were more local, this problem could be overcome.

Devolved authorities also appear to be more successful in improving the skills of their population and attracting inward investment. As Judith Blake, Leeds City Council leader, says “Take our Devolved Youth Contract that helped over 2000 young people move into education or employment. It had an 81% success rate compared to the national equivalent of 65%. Then our local Business Growth Programme has levered in £8 of private sector investment for every £1 spent on supporting businesses to expand, creating over 3000 new jobs across the Leeds City Region.”

While a bad or dysfunctional devolution deal may not be helpful – and there are no guarantees – the evidence suggests that devolution does strengthen local economies and, over time, makes areas wealthier.

What happens next?

It is certain that Brexit will be Boris Johnson’s primary focus for some time. The risk is that, as has been the case in the last three years, Brexit will crowd out other policy initiatives, making progress on devolution hard.

A champion in Westminster might be called on to help revive the plans – as has happened in Lancashire with Jake Berry MP being asked to assist.

Respected Local Government expert Tony Travers sees another possible route. He asks: “If a Johnson government survives later into the winter, might its members be more willing than previous ministers to deliver a more radical form of devolution within England and possibly to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? The demands of delivering Brexit will overwhelm the civil service for years to come, leaving much domestic policy without hope of delivery. Nations, city-regions and local government are well placed to take the strain off the centre.”

Devolution for Yorkshire – whether based on a One Yorkshire deal or multiple smaller deals – will depend on that collaboration and respect, and on the willingness of the Government and local authorities to compromise to find agreement.

How should the business community respond?

Under previous administrations, Whitehall has looked for evidence of wider buy-in to proposals beyond just the local politicians. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have typically been central. It is likely that the same will be true under Boris Johnson’s premiership. There is little to be done until there are firm plans on the table.

Once solid proposals are in place, it will be important for the private and public sectors to work together and demonstrate a shared will to make it work and deliver results. This might be via LEPs and Chambers of Commerce or as individual businesses showing support.

As things stand today, significant barriers still stand in the way of the devolution so many across Yorkshire have sought. But with clear benefits to devolution and a new administration in Whitehall, there are opportunities too.