LET me say what Yorkshire’s distinguished business leaders were too polite to highlight in their open letter on devolution published by this newspaper last Saturday – political parochialism is preventing this great county from becoming an even greater success story.
Take the debate about whether there should be a single elected mayor for Yorkshire. Listen to local leaders and all they’re salivating over is whether X or Y is a viable candidate and which senior council executives will work with the successful candidate. Some also don’t appreciate that their inflated opinion of their capabilities is not universally shared by local taxpayers.
I have news for these power-brokers. It’s not about you. It’s about the people of this county. And, in a region renowned for thrift, the electorate simply will not entertain – or endorse – another layer of bureaucracy unless they can be convinced about the economic benefits.
As such, my message to council leaders is this. You can’t begin to win the electorate’s support – don’t forget this structure was rejected in referendum votes in 2004 and 2012 – unless you come up with the most visionary and viable Mayoral job description possible.
What should the priorities be? Skills? Transport? Infrastructure? Social care? Health? Rural economy? Tourism? Should they become involved in the minutiae, like bin collections, or should they be this county’s number one trade ambassador?
Only then should they work out how this structure can work in practice. Transparency and accountability are key – there must be no repeat of the largesse that was, in part, the downfall of regional development agencies like Yorkshire Forward, or Leeds Council’s reluctance to identify those councillors who had not paid their council tax.
Though I, for one, believe a single figurehead for the whole county is still preferable to each city-region having their own mayor (and accompanying bureaucracy), I reserve judgement until the job description is revealed. There’s scope for a mayor to be a Yorkshire trailblazer if the remit is clear. This is not one of those classic clashes between the public and private sectors. Both do care about the region’s future – I get that – but there’s frustration that rival regions are steaming ahead while this county procrastinates. It hurts that Manchester can unveil a new £110m arts centre while this side of the Pennines dithers.
In this regard, the Archbishop of York’s enlightening speech to the House of Lords last Thursday should be the starting point. “Unless we get things right in the North, the whole country will be more divided, less prosperous and unhappier,” he declared. I couldn’t agree more – many in the South perceive, misguidedly, these parts to be a barrier to the prosperity of Great Britain plc.
He went on to highlight the “human resilience” of families here – and that this is as important as “economic resilience”. The sentiment is correct – this region paid the price for manufacturing’s decline but it’s equally important that we don’t talk down the talent pool here. There are young people brimming with ideas and innovation. The challenge is creating sufficient opportunities so they don’t gravitate to London to make their fortunes. More dilly-dallying will not stem the ‘brain drain’.
And then Dr Sentamu alluded to devolution. “We need more devolution from South to North – devolution of powers and of institutions. We need Cabinet-level figures to champion the North, people who know the qualities of the North from their own experience.”
He’s right. Though Middlesbrough-born Greg Clark holds the business brief, he represents the genteel Kent seat of Tunbridge Wells. Haltemprice and Howden MP David Davis is up to his neck with Brexit while Scarborough-born chief whip Gavin Williamson is trying to keep the Tory party in order. I’m not sure Goole MP Andrew Percy, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, has sufficient clout or respect in the corridors of power. He’s not in the Cabinet and, by all accounts, under-estimates the potential value of the ‘Yorkshire’ brand. Though Theresa May did write a thoughtful article for this newspaper on the opportunities that do exist in Yorkshire, her failure to visit this county – or any other Northern region – since becoming PM is disheartening.
Finally the Archbishop was more pragmatic than many on Brexit: “We need a more diverse economy that draws on the skills of Northern people. If Brexit prompts a shift in that direction, it may just be worth the uncertainty that we are currently experiencing.”
As this newspaper has stated repeatedly, skills are as important – if not more so – than transport and the other bugbears of business. Yet could a Mayor of Yorkshire make a difference on this issue?
It’s why I conclude by returning to my original point. The sooner a job description for Mayor of Yorkshire is drawn up, the better. And rather than mutual suspicion as the powers-that-be question the motives and agendas of those involved, they need to acknowledge the unity, the heritage, the resources, the culture and the wealth of the North. For, unless someone shows faith and seizes the moment, the devolution deadlock will remain and the people of Yorkshire – the people local councils purport to serve – will pay for weasel-like leadership.