The Urgent Need for Yorkshire Devolution

Regional inequalities in England are caused by growing centralisation of power - this trend can be reversed.

Author: Colin Speakman

David Olusoga’s recent four part BBC Two series Union is televised history at its best – passionate, meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated and presenting a clear logical train of ideas.

In the series Olusoga traces the forces that brought about the successful Union of the four quite diverse nations of the British Isles: England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Because of its size, wealth and huge population on the British mainland, England was always and remains the dominant player, to a degree that people often talk about Britain when they actually mean England.

This Union of nations which took place over several centuries was a marriage both of politics, but also convenience, forged through great periods of Conquest, Empire and the Industrial Revolution. It was at its strongest in times of war and invasion threat, with events like Waterloo, Trafalgar and even Dunkirk becoming part of a national mythology that united the people of these islands.

And the indeed the Union also worked well in the good times, most especially between the mid 18th and the late 20th centuries, when our great cities and industrial areas benefited from Britain’s lead as the greatest manufacturing and trading nation the world had ever known.

But loss of the British Empire and its captive markets, and in the post-war era, ever more challenging overseas industrial competition, left many of the once prosperous manufacturing areas in all four nations in decline. They were to be replaced largely by financial, legal and IT service industries, disproportionately located in the south and east of England, creating ever-widening regional disparities between a prosperous South, and impoverished Midlands and North.

Over the last century, economic change and the growth of new nationalisms have created new, often violent political, forces which have also profoundly changed the nature of the United Kingdom. Most of the island of Ireland now lies outside the UK, as a now prosperous independent nation within the European Union. The north eastern corner, the Province of Northern Ireland, struggles to find its identity, torn between the excesses of unionism and nationalism. Scotland and Wales, through more peaceful processes, have emerged as successful Devolved Nations, each with their own elected Parliament or Senedd.

But England remains rooted in an Edwardian past. Decades of economic failure, including the transparent inadequacy and hollowness of the Government’s so-called “Levelling Up” agenda, is now a major threat to all the nations of the UK, but perhaps especially so to the Northern and Midland Regions of England . Since 2010 and so-called austerity, with constant, cumulative cuts to local authority funding, once mighty Northern City and County administrations teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, with catastrophic impacts on public services and local community support services.

Yet at the same time, political power and control, and with it both private and public investment, have been remorselessly moved to the centre - to London and Whitehall. In 2012, without debate, as a so-called austerity measure, the Government Office for Yorkshire & Humber where at least a groups civil servants based in Yorkshire worked to brief their Whitehall colleagues and act as spokespersons for the Region, was summarily abolished.

The failures of this highly centralised administration are all too clear to see.

The average GDP per person – wealth - of people living in the East Midlands, Yorkshire & the Humber and the North East Regions, is now less than 50 % of those living in Greater London. Transport expenditure is three times higher per head of population in London than it is in Yorkshire. Whilst London has the magnificent Elizabeth Line and soon maybe even the stump of HS2 to Birmingham, elderly diesel railcars still traverse the Trans-Pennine rail route between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Hull, Teesside and Liverpool, despite this line linking a third of England’s population in the North. 95% of taxation income is gathered by central Government and 70% of decision of how that money is spent is decided by Whitehall. Yet the myth that London’s taxes are supporting the North is perpetuated by Homes Counties politicians and political commentators, enjoying lifestyles that for many people in areas like South Yorkshire are beyond imagining.

Inequalities in health care, education, housing, transport are now glaring.

A harrowing new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Destitution in the UK 2023, has indicated levels not just of poverty, but what is defined as “destitution”, unparalleled in recent history. An estimated four million people, including one million children, now live in abject poverty. Shamefully this figure has more than doubled since 2017.

Many experts, most notably the House of Lords Select Committee in its recent 10th report Respect and Cooperation: Building a Stronger Union in the 21st century and the report of the Commission on the UK’s Future under the chairmanship of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown A New Britain: Recovering our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy, stress the need for devolved governance in England at local, city and regional levels for any form of levelling-up to succeed.

In fact there is in existence a degree of highly effective Devolution in England – but uniquely and ironically in its wealthiest and most prosperous Region – Greater London. The Greater London Assembly consists of 25 members, all elected by a form of Proportional Representation, and representing different geographical areas within Greater London, and also the political balance of the area. The Assembly is also the governing body of the Greater London Authority. The Mayor is both answerable to the Assembly but also supported by them, as they can also suggest policies and priorities for the Mayor and the Authority to take on board.

The existence of the Assembly, which both supports and empowers the Mayor, is one factor in the massive success of the London Region.
And yet, inexplicably, the Labour Party is unlikely to insert proposals in any coming manifesto to create similar Assemblies or Authorities for England’s eight other Regions.

In the case of Yorkshire, this means that the Westminster’s current divide-and-rule policies will continue to separate the Yorkshire Region into what are expected to be four Mayoral Authorities or sub-regions - the two existing Mayoral Combined Authorities of West and South Yorkshire, the future York & North Yorkshire and (if agreement can finally be reached) Hull & East Riding.

Whilst any devolution of power, decision making and resource allocation is to be welcomed, in the case of Yorkshire, the four separate authorities make uneasy bedfellows. This includes the anomaly of North Yorkshire, England’s largest county, a huge under-resourced rural area with only a tiny percentage of its modest population living outside satellite towns and periurban suburbs of neighbouring economic centres and conurbations. This vast rural area includes two National Parks and three AONBs and a Heritage Coast, vital green lungs for the nearby cities. Many such key regional issues cross parochial local Government boundaries.

There are perhaps eight key areas of activity within the Yorkshire Region where cross boundary cooperation between authorities that can only be provided by a Regional Authority that is both urgent needed and essential. These are:

It is also worth noting that in Yorkshire, many critical areas of citizens’ lives are dominated by the work – often highly commendable – of existing quangos/commercial bodies over which people in the Region have no direct control, even when the responsibilities of those bodies like entirely within the Region.

These are key organisations that should, in some ways be answerable, indeed report to, a representative elected Assembly, to both report annually on how they are meeting their objectives, and their future plans and priorities.

Among key bodies we have so far identified are:

  1. Environment Agency
  2. Natural England
  3. Historic England
  4. Regional Health Boards
  5. Yorkshire Water
  6. Nationalised Rail operators (TransPennine/Northern)
  7. Yorkshire Climate Commission

The question that has to be asked is this: If London enjoys the support and democratic control provided by a London-Region wide elected body, in this case the 25-member London Assembly, why do other Regions not receive the same support and treatment, including the 5.4 million people living and working in the Yorkshire Region?

Why do London-centred politicians, including the present and even a possible future Government, deny other Regions of England the demonstrable benefits they enjoy themselves, living and working as they do within the Greater London Region?

This is the question that all politicians standing for re-election to the next UK Parliament need to answer.

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. The Urgent Need for Yorkshire Devolution © Colin Speakman 2023.

Article | 06.12.23

Constitutional Reform, local government, social justice, England, Article

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