Yorkshire needn’t be left behind on devolution
If devolution is going to improve economic performance, then government boundaries should relate to modern day economic realities, writes Clive Betts
Yorkshire has a population bigger than Scotland and an economy greater than Wales. Its citizens might like to describe it as God’s Own County, but the assertion of such a slogan is insufficient to cover the wide diversities of communities and economies in the historic county.
I have been a long-time supporter of devolution. Basing devolution on historic boundaries may be appropriate where and when it is clearly relevant for the delivery of particular services. The real test, however, is which boundaries and arrangements are the most appropriate in a particular location and these will differ from place to place according to local circumstances. The current economy and future economic challenges for South Yorkshire are completely different from those facing North Yorkshire or the East Yorkshire coast.
In 201, the Government began to devolve powers to mayoral combined authorities. While there were and still are differing views about the requirements to have a mayor there was general agreement that devolution should be based on city regions as coherent areas of local economic activity. The powers to be devolved were related to improving the economic performance of those areas such as skills, transport and development. The intention was to deal with the challenge that, uniquely in Western Europe, the major cities in the UK apart from London and Bristol have GVAs below the national average.
Across the Pennines in Lancashire, there was a recognition of the opportunities. Liverpool and Manchester agreed devolution deals based on their city regions not on historic county boundaries.
The Sheffield City Region (SCR) agreed a similar devolution deal in 2015, with devolved powers and resources to pursue business and jobs growth through investment in infrastructure, innovation and business support, vocational education and transport. The deal was worth £30m per year and more per head of population than any other deal. Unfortunately, having signed up to the deal, Barnsley and Doncaster decided not to proceed as they wanted to pursue a wider deal for the whole of Yorkshire.
So far, therefore, Yorkshire has no devolution of powers or money. Leeds started a process and withdrew while North and East Yorkshire haven’t produced any proposals apart from support for One Yorkshire, which the Government won’t talk about until the SCR they agreed to has been activated.
There is, then, the challenge that the SCR should in economic terms encompass not just South Yorkshire but also those parts of the travel-to-work area in North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire. If devolution is going to improve economic performance, then government boundaries should relate to modern day economic realities not where medieval fiefdoms were drawn up centuries ago. I am sure that when SCR is up and running, there will be a renewed interest in their engagement.
Exactly the same challenge will face Hull in East Yorkshire, who have clear economic ties with the South bank which happens to be in a different historic county.
The challenges for SCR are not just about economic regeneration but also about diversifying the economy, securing additional jobs which match the potential highly qualified workforce who come from our universities and want to stay in the area. But with too few jobs to match their talents. We need more training opportunities to improve the skills and pay levels of the population in general. The development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, with its 600-place apprentice training facility, the opening of plants by Rolls Royce, Boeing and McLaren and the proposal for an innovation corridor stretching from the Olympic Legacy Park to the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport are some of the many positives already happening.
We have some excellent examples of what can be achieved when councils, education institutions at the forefront of technological change, skills providers, and businesses and entrepreneurs do get their act together.
We need to work closely to improve connections across the Pennines as well as with the rest of Yorkshire. Manchester and Sheffield have worse transport links than any other major cities in Western Europe.
Yorkshire needn’t be left behind. Activating the Sheffield deal should spur the rest of Yorkshire into negotiating their own devolution deals with the prospect of four elected mayors or combined authority leaders working together.
Clive Betts is Labour MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee