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.

 
 
 
 

Amid housing and climate concerns, Australians find more to love about Tasmania's capital city

A AU$200 million expansion is planned for Hobart's international airport to further connect the city to the world. (Steve Bell/Getty Images)

The city of Hobart, with its population of 250,000 people, sits on the southern coast of Tasmania, Australia’s island state. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Sydney or Melbourne, it’s serene and spacious, with expansive views, striking 19th century architecture, and a world-class food and wine scene. The one-of-a-kind Museum of Old and New Art creates yet another draw for tourists; so does the island’s extraordinary natural beauty.

Over the past decade, Hobart has also become increasingly popular as a permanent destination, too: its population increased by about 10% between 2011 and 2018. 

Formerly Australia’s poorest state, Tasmania has sometimes been the butt of jokes, especially among those who have either never visited, or grown up and left for good. In a recent domestic skirmish, where Queensland was left out of Tasmania’s “travel bubble,” the state’s deputy premier declared: “I don't see any reason why anyone would want to go to Tassie.” 


People outside of Australia may know it only for its unique fauna, including the Tasmanian devil, or via the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix series Nanette touches on the challenges of growing up there. (She describes it as “a little island floating off the arse end of mainland Australia,” known for its potato farming and “frighteningly small gene pool.”)

But, as a place to live, Tasmania has become increasingly attractive to Australians and foreigners alike in a way that might have seemed unlikely even a decade ago. In 2015, the state had its first positive quarter of interstate migration in four years; since then, a steady trickle of migrants have made their way to the Apple Isle, as it’s sometimes known, often citing climate change concerns and lower house prices as reasons for the move. Many, particularly in Hobart, are international students. 

Now, with Covid spikes in Victoria and New South Wales, Tasmania – with the 150 mile Bass Strait as its moat – has seldom seemed more appealing. In the past quarter, Tasmania has become Australia’s best-performing state economy for the first time since 2009, with annual growth of about 5%. It ranked first in the country for relative population growth, relative unemployment, equipment investment and retail trade. More than 13,000 people are now members of a “That’s It, I’m Moving to Tassie” Facebook group, for people "considering or dreaming about making the big move to Tasmania”. A planned AU$200 million expansion to its international airport will further connect Hobart to the world.

Even before the pandemic, many Australians had begun what Lisa Denny, a demographer from the University of Tasmania, describes as a “value reset.” Between the bushfires and other extreme weather events, “the cost of insurance, the risks, the interruptions to life, and the devastation that have been attached to it, people have been seeking out safer, more secure, and less expensive places to live,” she says. “For many people, [the pandemic] will reinforce or bring forward decisions to move or change their lifestyle, or change what work they do and how they work.”

Kailey Milroy and her husband had been weighing up a move to Hobart since 2017. In 2018, while they were still living in Milroy’s hometown of Vancouver, Canada, the couple deputised her husband’s parents to travel from New South Wales and view a house for them. They bought it, sight unseen, and let out. Until June, the couple and their two young children had been living in Newcastle, New South Wales, two hours north of Sydney. But when their tenant in Hobart asked to end her lease early, the family decided to take the plunge and relocate. “We really love it,” Milroy says. “We’ve already met some people and our neighbours have been super welcoming.” 

Under normal circumstances, the family might have waited a few more years to move. But the year’s news cycle – first, the aggressive bushfires; next, the isolation from nearby friends and family during lockdown – created new incentives to move. “It just made us realise, all the things we were worried about, with moving to Hobart, we can manage that,’” she says. “And it was somewhere we really wanted to be, so it felt worthwhile to give it a shot.”

With no new data on new arrivals to Tasmania expected for a matter of months, it’s hard to hypothesise accurately about either current or future migration, says Denny. The pandemic will necessarily curtail overseas migration, possibly for years to come, but it’s not clear what effect it will have on interstate migration, particularly if Australian employers embrace remote work with the same enthusiasm as some of their international neighbours. 

Still, for the last few years, around 14,000 people have arrived in Tasmania each year, roughly evenly split between international and interstate migration; of these, about 11% are aged between 25 and 29. Each year, about 12,000 people have also left, however, for a net gain of about 2,000 residents.

The effect on housing over this time has been noticeable. At about $510,000, the median house price in Hobart is a fraction of the median in Sydney ($975,000) or Melbourne ($775,000), but roughly the same as in Brisbane, Adelaine, or Perth. But prices in Hobart are rising and rapidly. Hobart’s median house price has risen more than 50%, from $347,000, in the past five years. (In Brisbane, by contrast, house prices have barely changed; in Perth, they’ve actually dipped). Despite the pandemic, Hobart housing prices continue to rise, with an increase in cost of about 1% in the last quarter and 11% in the last year, exceeding every other state capital.  

Ingrid Boone bought a property in Hobart earlier this year, arriving from Sydney just three hours before lockdown began. For the next six weeks, she says, she took extended leave from her work as a retail merchandiser and renovated the house and garden. “As I was here, even in lockdown, I just fell in love with my house – with the view, with the climate, with the opportunity to garden.” 

Returning to Sydney was a wrench. “This dark cloud came over me – it was a horrible time mentally.” When a job opened up in Tasmania, she lost no time in accepting it and returning. “The word ‘yes’ just came out of my mouth. I couldn’t get back down here quick enough,” she says. “I’ve just been absolutely in heaven.” Though the distance from her two adult daughters, who both live on the mainland, has been a struggle, she’s blissfully happy in her new home. “Every single day, the beauty of the place, it just takes my breath away,” Boone says. “I’ve fallen in love with Hobart, and have not for one single second regretted it.”

Though migrants to Tasmania often mention the lower cost of land as a particular pull, there are other Australian regions that are comparable in price. The clinching factor often comes down to questions of climate and lifestyle. 

For Mike Olsen, an IT worker originally from Queensland, even the mandatory AU$2,800 ($2,000) quarantine fee – and two weeks in a government-appointed facility – didn’t put him off making the leap. “I've been to Tasmania a number of times, I've always been interested in living here,” he said. “And after the first wave of Covid, I chose to quit my job, spend a little time with family up in Queensland, and then come down here.”  

Though he’s currently waiting out his time in a quarantine hotel, Olsen plans to spend around a month exploring Tasmania, with a view to finding work in IT and a block of land to buy, likely a half-hour outside Hobart. He’d been thinking about the move for a number of years, he said: “Mainly because I love nature, and Tasmania is full of nature – amazing hikes, down here.” Lower land prices, compared to much of the rest of Australia, are another draw. “It’s got a lot of things going for it.”

In the past, a lack of jobs has prevented many would-be migrants from moving to Tasmania before retirement. But more awareness around the potential for remote work could tip the balance in the state’s favor. “It might give people the impetus to be able to choose where they live, but we really don't know until we start seeing the numbers,” Denny says. “It’s going to be very interesting to see play out, but I think Tasmania is well positioned to be attractive for people to live in, in a changing world.”

Natasha Frost is a freelance journalist based in New York City.