Leeds Conservatives speak out against government on West Yorkshire Mayor plans
Conservative members of Leeds City Council have accused their own party of “tying the hands” of councillors on the issue of devolution.
The comments came during a special meeting of Leeds City Council, which also heard claims that a proposed devolution deal for West Yorkshire was “disappointing” and “democracy-deficient”.
One senior councillor even claimed the proposed deal was like entering a two-legged donkey into the Grand National.
The devolution deal struck in March would see an elected mayor covering the county’s five local authority areas, including Leeds, in exchange for extra powers around transport and infrastructure, and a further £38m a year in spending. It was agreed despite a 2012 referendum in Leeds alone, in which plans for an elected mayor for the city were rejected.
Members of the council’s decision-making Executive Board claimed on Tuesday that the Government’s continued insistence on elected mayors meant the region had to accept them “whether we like it or not”.
Coun Dawn Collins (Con) told the meeting: “The people of Leeds voted against having a mayor in 2012. It seems ironic the Government now wishes us to take more powers and responsibilities, but are tying our hands when it comes to this issue.
“Some local people are unhappy with the way we have developed our core strategy over the years, but we at least gave them a voice and we are now a lot closer to having a plan that can be accepted by the majority of our residents.
“If the government gives more powers to a mayor regarding planning, we can see dramatic changes on this issue alone. Local people must continue to have a say on the city’s development – a mayoral spatial strategy could be the opposite of what many people would support.
“The world has had many solitary leaders – kings, queens, Caesars, fuhrers – some have been benevolent and always put the people they lord over first, others have not.
“It may seem extreme to compare these levels of ruler with a local mayor, but I am just trying to make a point that single leaders are sometimes dangerous, and seldom brings the results the man on the street actually wants.”
Coun Collins claimed Leeds should also demand a veto on mayor-enforced planning decisions.
She added: “If a week in politics is a long time. Imagine what four years can do.”
Conservative leader Coun Andrew Carter said: “Devolution is long overdue. It is well known that this is not my ideal solution deal. I would have much preferred a city region deal, but the deal we have got is probably all, at this stage, we can get.
“If you believe devolution does not change the way the city operates, and if you believe some of the powers we have had will not be eroded, then you are living in another world.
“We had a referendum on a mayor for Leeds. The vote was 64 per cent against. We have a credibility gap to bridge, and we owe it to our citizens.”
The devolution deal is set to see a new mayoral area cover the local authority areas of Leeds, Wakefield, Calderdale, Bradford and Kirklees. It followed months of unsuccessful attempts to convince government to sanction a “One Yorkshire” deal, which would see such an authority cover the whole of North, West, South and East Yorkshire.
Coun Stewart Golton, the Liberal Democrats group leader for Leeds, said: “It is the Conservatives that have insisted on having this singular leadership as the key asset as part of any devolution deal they will give to any local authorities.
“In terms of the devolution deal, this is the only deal available, and that is why we should take it. The fact is it is not a great deal.
“What we really wanted was a One Yorkshire devolution deal, and it is down to the failure of leadership of the two big main parties in Yorkshire that it is not what we have on the table.
“We have a deal in West Yorkshire with very limited powers. The elected mayor is a paper tiger in the way the deal has been written so far.
“Let’s make this popular and meaningful, not just a conversation between a bunch of civil servants.”
According to the plans for the devolution deal, voting members on the mayoral authority will include the elected mayor, five elected members, one appointed by each of the five constituent councils. There would also be three elected members agreed by the constituent councils to reflect the balance of political parties across the combined authority area.
But some were unsatisfied with this, calling on more representative forms of governance.
Morley Borough Independents (MBI) leader Coun Robert Finnigan said: “The combined vote of both the Labour and Tory parties in most local elections in West Yorkshire amounts to about two thirds of those voting. This means that next year’s metro mayor elections, one voter in three is likely to be disenfranchised in terms of their vote counting.
“The Tories are likely to get one – possibly two – seats on the new overseeing body, despite getting around 25 per cent of the overall vote.
“The Lib Dems are likely to get one seat, despite their vote, on average, being lower than the combined Green and Independent vote across West Yorkshire.
“There is a clear democratic deficit in the ruling body that will oversee and scrutinise the new West Yorkshire mayor.”
David Blackburn, leader of the Leeds City Council Greens group, said: “Three Prime Ministers later, what we are offered is not much different from what the Government were offering in the first place.
“It is not a victory for devolution as it lets down the people of Leeds and the whole of Yorkshire. It’s like being offered a horse for sale to run in the Grand National – we were looking for the reincarnation of Red Rum, and what we have been offered is a donkey, and a donkey with two legs, in that case.”
“I am totally disappointed. I hope the Government learns that to make devolution work, you need to listen to what they say locally and not try to impose something from outside.”
Council deputy leader James Lewis (Lab) shot back at the Conservatives, saying: “I have been involved in devolution longer than most people in the council have. For the last 10 years, the devolution issue has been steered from the centre, by the Conservative Party, who have made it clear that in order to get anything out of the Government, we have to have an elected mayor.
“We have great examples of elected mayors, and also some examples of mayors who maybe haven’t delivered what was expected, but we have to have an elected mayor whether we like it or not.
“If we want a mass transit system, better bus services, investment in transport, digital infrastructure, brownfield land, regeneration, we need that money out of central government, and we can only get that with an elected mayor.”
Following the discussions, Coun Blake said: “We have argued repeatedly that the Tory model of devolution is too prescriptive – it worked on a one-size-fits-all model which is clearly hasn’t worked around the country. That is why there have been so many failures getting devolution deals over the line.
“Everybody knows the Labour group have argued consistently for a Leeds City Region deal, when we were denied that by government, we went for a One Yorkshire deal – we were denied that – and then we saw first hand the Government channelling millions of pounds of money to areas who had directly elected mayors.
“We recognised this is the only show in town, and the only opportunity to get money out of Whitehall and under our control.
“We know so many people in our communities are suffering from that lack of investment. It’s all there to see.”