Ministers’ rejection of One Yorkshire is an opportunity to give Yorkshire’s cities the powers they need

Clouds over the dales. Image: Getty.

On Tuesday the Government revealed its long-awaited response to the proposal for a One Yorkshire devolution deal. James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, wrote to all the councils that had sought a Yorkshire-wide plan setting out his views as to why he was rejecting this plan and also setting out that his preferred way forward is to adopt the city-region model.

The rejection of the One Yorkshire proposal for devolution will be a blow to the 18 Yorkshire authorities who first came together publicly to push for it in August 2017. Aside from the effort and money invested in the One Yorkshire plan, the delay has meant Yorkshire cities and towns have missed out. The Sheffield City Region devolution deal was put on the back burner as councils pursued a county deal. This has left the city region without access to a £30m investment fund that had been set aside for them.

Meanwhile, metro mayors in neighbouring Tees Valley and Greater Manchester have been accessing extra government money and using extra policy freedoms and flexibilities to invest in growth.

The Secretary of State’s letter now provides some clarity on what devolution the government will support in Yorkshire: an empowered Sheffield City Region deal, and then deals for the Leeds City Region, Greater York and the Humber Estuary. Irrespective of whether it is their preferred devolution model, at least leaders in Yorkshire now have the outline of a viable offer that they can accept or refuse, and other places also have more of a sense of the government’s thinking about the future of English devolution.

Sweetening the devolution deal

The government’s position is a reflection of the importance of Yorkshire’s city-regions in driving the Yorkshire economy. But it’s also a recognition that increasing the prosperity of the city-regions requires giving the local leaders need money, as well as power over areas such as skills, transport and strategic planning.

This is the economic rationale for devolution; it recognises that the policies needed in Leeds city-region will look different to those in the Hull and Humber city-region, and that the benefits of investment in one city-region will be largely restricted to that city-region.

Devolving power to functional economic geographies with clear and accountable leadership should be restated as the model for devolution that government has rightfully, if slowly, got behind.

Now the government has shown its hand on the preferred geography for Yorkshire devolution, it should also take this opportunity to go further on the devolution agenda.  In addition to offering all of what’s already on offer to other places, it should also offer Yorkshire’s city-regions additional fiscal powers and flexibilities – from devolved Vehicle Excise Duty, a slice of local VAT revenues, tourist taxes or council tax flexibility – and a guaranteed increase in funding from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Yorkshire’s city-region economies are too big and too important to the county, and the country for any more time to be wasted.   In May 2020, over 20 million voters across the seven mayoral combined authorities and London will have the chance to have a greater say over their economic destiny. Government and local leaders from the West Riding to the East can’t allow voters in the majority of Yorkshire’s cities to miss out again.

Simon Jeffrey is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.