George Osborne offered one vision of devolution – but One Yorkshire wants another

Yorkshire: site of the battle for devolution’s soul. Image: Getty.

All eyes are now on Yorkshire. As the government’s devolution programme runs out of steam, England’s largest county has become the battleground for competing visions of what a devolved England might look like.

On one hand is a vision of devolution based on the big cities like Sheffield and Leeds; on the other, is the ‘One Yorkshire’ vision, where power is devolved to the larger regional scale to create a more inclusive form of development that addresses the needs and aspirations of communities beyond the big cities.

What is at stake in this debate?

Shortly after the 2015 General Election, building on his earlier launch of the Northern Powerhouse, the thenn Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, proclaimed his ambition to roll-out devolution across England by creating “metro mayors” for England’s biggest cities. Speaking in Manchester, Osborne was clear that the refusal to introduce a metro mayor would preclude the devolution of power from Westminster.

The location for the speech was significant. For Osborne, Manchester presented a successful model of economic development; he had already secured the agreement of council leaders there to introduce a metro mayor, an arrangement dubbed “Devo Manc”.

In his speech, Osborne asserted that his was “a vision based on the solid economic theory”, arguing that, “There is a powerful correlation between city size and the productivity of its inhabitants.” Metro mayors, governing an entire metropolitan region, were crucial to unlocking economic growth, he claimed.

Osborne was echoing the idea that Britain’s cities have been held back by land-use planning restrictions. and because too much policy attention has been wasted on places that will never have the dynamism of big cities. Allowing market forces freer rein would accelerate their growth based on tech clusters and the attraction of knowledge workers, principally by facilitating the increased supply of housing.

Metro mayors, in other words, would be dealmakers focused on attracting property investors. These views gained strong backing from thinktanks such as the (London-based) Centre for Cities, and initiatives such as the City Growth Commission, led by Osborne’s ally, Lord Jim O’Neill.

The theory is not without merit – but its limits are now apparent and, since Osborne left the stage, fresh ideas have emerged to challenge the Whitehall orthodoxy.

The rethinking begins with the 2016 Brexit referendum result, which has been widely interpreted as pitching north against south and big cities against towns. Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the LSE suggests we should understand Brexit as an instance of “revenge of the places that don’t matter”: the struggling mill towns, declining coastal resorts and former coalfields that have been largely untouched by the growth in big cities.


In England, the neglect of these places has led to the accumulation of social, economic and political problems for the whole of society. Expecting people in these places to move to big cities is unrealistic and unreasonable – not just because it is unaffordable but because it requires them to abandon the strong community networks they rely upon.

Moreover, multiplying towers of glass and steel and cranes on the skyline offer a narrow vison of development. They contribute to short-term improvements in indicators such as GDP and benefit property owners, but also generate increased inequality within and between places, excluding those who cannot get on the housing ladder because they are trapped in low paid jobs.

Labour MP Rachel Reeves has called for a stronger focus on the ‘Everyday Economy’, those sectors that impact of the lives of people away from the tech hubs and luxury flats. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown how reliable and affordable local bus services are crucial to the economic development of disadvantaged places; and improving bus services requires institutional and regulatory changes best achieved at the regional scale. As the Centre for Towns has shown, tackling problems of ageing and ill-health are among the pressing problems in disadvantaged places. Rebuilding material and civic infrastructure – the ‘foundational economy’ – in local communities is a key political task.

New research suggests that large cities are not always the most dynamic engines of growth, and that some smaller and medium-sized cities and rural areas have outperformed them. The OECD cautions against focusing only on “core cities”, identifying “agglomeration costs” such as problems of housing affordability, infrastructure shortages and rising pollution and congestion. It advocates the benefits of well-connected regions of rural communities and networks of smaller, networked cities. Even highly disadvantaged communities contain assets and networks that could become the focus of development.

The idea that economic development can be left solely to market forces is the root of many of our problems, but still grips many of our political leaders. Part of the argument for One Yorkshire concerns the strength of its identity. Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, has dismissed the idea of One Yorkshire as based on “nostalgia, not economic reality,” while Lord O’Neill has rejected it as “chest-beating slogans”. But Yorkshire identity cannot be denied, nor can it be trumped by appeals to an economic model that does not deliver for enough people. The Sheffield Citizens’ Assembly showed a clear preference for a Yorkshire scale of government. 

Yorkshire identity is not just a potentially powerful international brand but represents civic capital and the basis for a shared collective project. Bavarian identity, expressed among other ways through its powerful state parliament, does not appear to have prevented Munich from becoming one of the world’s most prosperous and liveable cities. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, states that a sense of identity, as much as price signals, shapes our economic decision-making. It can underpin a sense of common purpose and influences behaviour in ways that conventional economists overlook.

Luxury flats and high-end offices in city centres are insufficient to raise living standards in the regions. Leeds City Council’s decision to develop an inclusive growth strategy is a recognition of this. One Yorkshire is also a response to the weaknesses of developer-led, city-centric policies.

This is not to deny that cities are important, but rather to suggest the regional scale is able to address links between dynamic places and their hinterlands, smaller cities, towns and coastal and rural areas. The appeal of One Yorkshire lies in its promise a more holistic, integrated and inclusive economic and social vision for the region. It remains to be seen which vision of devolution will triumph, but the choices are clear.

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University College London.

 
 
 
 

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