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.