Three reasons a Yorkshire devolution deal probably isn't going to happen

The Ribblehead Viaduct: emphatically not part of the Leeds City Region. Image: Getty.

The ancient English county of Yorkshire contains more people than Scotland, and an economy worth twice that of Wales. Consequently, there are those who believe that it deserves its own political identity.

There’s a Yorkshire Party (formerly Yorkshire First), which aspires to be a sort of SNP-of-the-dales. And, because no English devolution can ever take place without involving at least two warring factions, there’s also the Yorkshire Devolution Movement, which used this year’s Yorkshire Day (1 August, of course) to launch its campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament.

Both are, I fear, whistling in the wind.

There’s nothing inherently ridiculous about the idea of a Yorkshire-based devolution deal, of course: more than 5m people live in the county, which is more than enough to constitute a small country, let alone a regional government. We might even have had a Yorkshire Parliament already, if only proposals for regional assemblies hadn’t been so comprehensively shot down in 2004.

So why my cynicism? Am I just another uppity Londoner trying to keep god’s own country in its place?

Well, possibly. (I do hate parkin.) But I have three more solid reasons, too.

It’s the economy, stupid

The current round of devolution deals, which was started by George Osborne and which may or may not continue now he’s history, has generally focused on economically coherent units: city-regions or smaller counties, whose identities come as much from commuting patterns as from boundaries dating back to King Alfred.

Two deals didn’t do this. The North East deal covered almost an entire government region (Teeside got its own deal). The East Anglian one originally included both the M11-Cambridge corridor (in which the population looks south to London), and Norfolk and Suffolk (in which they don’t).

Both have since collapsed. That suggests it’s easier to get diverse councils to put their differences aside and agree on a deal when they can see themselves as a single economic unit, with something to gain from working together. It’s far from clear Yorkshire does.

A block in the pipe

So far, the most visible result of the campaign for Yorkshire-wide devolution has been a negative one: to stop Leeds from getting a deal.

Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool are all getting set for their own metro mayors next year. Leeds isn’t, because no one in Yorkshire could agree on what a Yorkshire deal should look like.

The Labour-led West Yorkshire councils – Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield and so forth – got behind a Leeds City Region deal. But local Tories, frightened of handing local power to the Labour opposition, lined up with the more rural North Yorkshire and East Riding councils to call for a “Greater Yorkshire” arrangement, which would have subsumed Leeds into a single deal covering most of historic Yorkshire.

Result: deadlock, and no deal.

The problem of Sheffield

Actually, that’s not quite true: one bit of Yorkshire may very well get a devolution deal, and is working with bits of neighbouring counties to get it. The Sheffield City Region doesn’t only include Sheffield proper, but the neighbouring cities with which it once shared South Yorkshire (Doncaster, Rotherham, Barnsley etc.), as well as the parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire that are economically connected to it.

Not everyone is happy about this. Derbyshire County Council is a bit miffed about being cruelly abandoned by Chesterfield and its lovely business rates, so is threatening legal action to block the deal.

Nonetheless, there’s a pretty good chance that the Sheffield City Region will happen. A large and heavily populated bit of Yorkshire has decided to pursue its own devolution deal in partnership with places that aren’t in Yorkshire at all.

Traitors to the rose, the lot of them.

So – the Yorkshire Party and the Yorkshire Devolution Movement can hang on for an all-Yorkshire deal all they like. But it probably isn’t going to happen, probably wouldn’t work if it did, and anyway a chunk of the county has made other plans.

Given all that one has to wonder – was it really worth leaving poor old Leeds out in the cold?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.

This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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