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.