James Brokenshire’s rejection of the One Yorkshire devolution deal absolutely stinks of partisanship

Communities secretary James Brokenshire. Image: Getty.

There was, by some accounts, much mirth in the civil service when the cabinet minister responsible for devolution to the cities and counties of England was first appointed. He’s called James Brokenshire.

We’ll come back to him: let’s start in Yorkshire. The failure of Leeds to get a devolution settlement, at a time when Manchester, Liverpool and even Middlesbrough had managed it, has been a source of some consternation among the city’s politicians. Much of the problem has come down to endless rows over geometry. Should any devolution deal just cover the old West Yorkshire? A larger Leeds City Region? Or something bigger still?

After endless back and forth, the latter convincingly won out among local leaders across the political spectrum. The One Yorkshire plan – it does what it says on the tin – won the backing of Dan Jarvis, Labour mayor of the Sheffield City Region mayor, as well as 18 other council leaders, making it by far the most popular possible settlement for England’s biggest county.

But, in what looks a lot like nominative determinism, Brokenshire today made clear that the only way England’s biggest county would get a devolution settlement was in bits:

“I recognise the ambition that underpins these proposals but they do not meet our devolution criteria.

“However, we are prepared to begin discussions about a different, localist approach to devolution in Yorkshire. We know there is local appetite for other devolution elsewhere in Yorkshire, with representations having been made previously by the Leeds City Region, York and North Yorkshire and the Humber Estuary.

“In line with current Government policy, we would be prepared to consider any proposals submitted on the basis Sheffield City Region deal is completed, honouring the mayor’s commitment to local people and unlocking £900m investment in the area.”

There’s the grain of a point hidden here somewhere. Yorkshire in some ways is a silly thing to devolve to, as it’s a huge area, and – unlike Greater London or Greater Manchester – covers several different economies with radically different needs. Splitting the county into four – a Sheffield bit, a Leeds/Bradford bit, a Hull & East Riding bit, and a huge but not massively populated North Yorkshire fringe – would mean you don’t end up with, say, plans for a West Yorkshire tram network foundering because it can’t win support in Scarborough.

On the flip side, though: you can make the same argument against devolution to Scotland or Wales, and they’re pootling on okay, and with smaller populations than Yorkshire, too. Part of the battle with any new political unit is getting public support, and Yorkshire is a brand in a way “the Leeds City Region” isn’t. (I have, I should confess, changed my mind on the importance of this point.)


And One Yorkshire, unlike whatever alternatives Brokenshire favours, has one crucial advantage, in that it actually exists and has backing.

Most damningly of all, it’s very far from clear what “criteria” the deal failed to meet because the government has never published them. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the criteria this Tory government was most concerned about was keeping the left-leaning Sheffield region out of any Yorkshire devolution settlement, on the grounds that doing so would turn a safe Labour-region into a marginal one that a Tory mayoral candidate might one day hope to win.

It seems churlish, just 45 days from the economic cliff edge, to complain that the government is also letting us down on devolution. But today’s news is a reminder, nonetheless, that this government’s abject cynicism and complete inability to do anything without a partisan lens extends far, far beyond Brexit.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.