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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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.