Yorkshire Devolution: The Federal Litmus Test

Following a highly disappointing vote held in North East England which saw 77.9% shut down the regional assembly initiative, also scheduled for North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber, John Prescott’s attempt at far-reaching regional devolution proved a resolute failure. Fifteen years later, however, it is once again Labour which boldly dares more democracy with Jeremy Corbyn’s backing of the Greater Yorkshire devolution deal.

In March this year, the then Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, received the One Yorkshire plan proposed by 18 of Yorkshire’s 20 councils. The letter sought ascension of the 18 councils to Combined Authority (CA) status, the most recent incarnation of local devolution with plenty of promise for a future federal structure. As a CA, a self-started legal body of two or more councils, the onus is taken from unwieldy central government to regional collectives to act immediately and decisively to economic and demographic problems. As Brookings’ Bruce Katz underscores, British cities send their revenues directly to Whitehall, which then redistributes according to its centralised blueprint. Cities such as Leeds, York and Hull, he says, ‘are forced to wait for Whitehall to recognize problems and respond with corrective measures’, while those councils which take the initiative ‘are not rewarded for their good behaviour’.

Each CA is supplied a bespoke devolution package which aims to remedy a series of local issues. This doesn’t mean that every CA enjoys a generous endowment of regional powers; foci are dependant on the CA members’ mutual areas of interest. For a Greater Yorkshire Combined Authority, this means transport budgets, franchised bus services, adult skills funding, and a £500 million Housing Investment Fund. I’m thinking about those student bus tickets…

This is a considerably progressive sign of initiative from the Yorkshire councils involved. The West Yorkshire CA, currently consisting of Leeds City Region, Leeds City Council, Bradford City Council, Wakefield Met. District Council, Kirklees Met. Borough Council, and Caledrale Met. Borough Council would be dissolved in an ambitious expansionist project of regional devolution. But does it go far enough?

Wales received the Welsh Assembly under Tony Blair in 1998, while Northern Ireland has had patchy devolved governance at Stormont since The Good Friday Agreement came into play in 1999. Both are historically significant institutions, both hold distinct regional identities, and both are considerably removed from London in every respect. And Yorkshire and the Humber? This historical region, consisting of a population of over 5 million and a UK Gross Value Added (GVA) share of 6.6% – higher than both Wales and Northern Ireland combined, and not far off Scotland’s economic might (7.6% GVA share) – is an impressive indicator of what southerners and Londoners oft derogatorily label as ‘the North’. It has been an underestimated region, with the economic growth of its three largest cities, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford have a combined GVA of £42.060 billion (2015), greater than Glasgow and Edinburgh’s combined GVA share. The economic case is a no-brainer.

It is to be adorned that the Labour Party champions power to the people at a time at which it can profit from populist democracy platforms which Italy, Austria and Germany’s far-right parties have entered government and opposition on. Yet, this quasi-federalism will not necessitate ill thought-out referenda and jingoism, but will call upon people passionate about both local and regional issues to take up positions of influence. The Yorkshire Devolution Deal would be unprecedented in its uniting of provincial villages, towns and cities. The parallels with a greater federal experiment are uncanny, and something the people of Britain doesn’t yet realise it needs for the sake of its democracy.

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