The half a million people of Barnsley and Doncaster are now entering the final few days of a community consultation on the future of Yorkshire devolution. They are voting on whether they want to be part of a Sheffield City Region, or to further explore the possibility of a larger, more powerful ‘One Yorkshire’ deal.
As it stands the Government is planning to impose the narrower Sheffield City Region deal. This is despite the fact that the majority of local councils in Yorkshire agree that the best way to unlock Yorkshire’s potential is through the wider ‘One Yorkshire’ deal.
Last week the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, wrote a letter to Jake Berry, The Northern Powerhouse Minister, proposing that the Sheffield City Region deal be used as an interim arrangement with a Yorkshire wide mayor elected in 2020; something he felt “would be the best in the long run”.
The Archbishop is right that we need to think long-term. This issue of devolution goes to the heart of two of the most important strategic questions our country currently faces: how we respond to the causes of Brexit and how we prepare for a post Brexit Britain. If we are to find the right answer to both these questions, we must look both at and beyond South Yorkshire – and we must consider a systemic reform of power and politics across the whole country.
Many people, particularly in the north of England, voted to leave the European Union because they were tired of feeling powerless and excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by other parts of the country. That feeling was not an illusion. Government spending in Yorkshire is nearly £300 per person lower than the national average, and transport infrastructure investment is one tenth of that in the capital. And, perhaps most tellingly, income in Yorkshire is only 80% of the national average, whilst, outside of London and the south-east, real earning power in the UK has not risen in a decade.
But the disillusionment that contributed to the ‘Leave’ vote isn’t just about the centralisation of wealth in London; it is about how people believe they are represented. Across the UK only 27% think our system of government is working well and a similarly small number feel that either parliament represents “people like them” or that ordinary people “have a big say in decision making”.
These concerns cannot be addressed without looking at how power is distributed and used. The government needs to empower communities by devolving decision-making closer to the places it will affect. Together with investment, this will lead to both better public services and the reengagement of people around a common sense of community purpose. If this devolution was then linked to a reformed upper house of parliament, we could also ensure that people from places like Yorkshire have a much stronger and clearer voice in Westminster. These two reforms together would help address the power imbalances that people felt in the lead up to the Brexit vote, and still feel today.
I also believe that a One Yorkshire deal – which encompasses the 5.4 million people who live in our region – is the right way to prepare for life after Brexit. We need to think bigger than city-regions if we are going to go out and compete on a global scale. By working at a truly regional level, we will be better placed to cooperate with and compete with other devolved areas and other nations.
The potential benefits of such a deal are huge; the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has estimated that devolving power to Yorkshire, coupled with an ambitious economic agenda, could mean that within ten years everyone in our region is £600 a year better off. That’s because devolution is about more than just investment in infrastructure: it’s about attracting new investment to develop and grow our regional economy; using new planning powers to regenerate our cities and towns; and harnessing our collective talent, energy and influence to turn regional reputations into global brands. And whilst the detail of any deal would have to be carefully considered, I believe that the more power we can devolve to our regions the better placed they will be to deal with the challenges and opportunities of life after Brexit.
On Thursday the result of Barnsley and Doncaster’s community consultation will be announced. This, combined with weight of opinion from local council leaders and the need for compromise, as articulated by The Archbishop of York, presents the government the chance to develop their devolution agenda and adapt it for the better. I hope the government now seizes the opportunity that devolution provides to both respond to the causes of Brexit and prepare Britain for life after it.