Yorkshire is the only English county where at any sporting or music event, and even sometimes just out in the streets, you will hear that chant uniting one and all: “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!”
God’s Own County, it is regularly dubbed. Despite its vast size, demographic and geographical differences, no other county evokes the same sense of pride across all its citizens. So much so that in recent years, there have been more and more calls for devolution to be delivered to Yorkshire.
This has become especially pertinent given the fact that those on the other (or wrong, if you are a Yorkshireman) side of the Pennines in Greater Manchester were handed devolved powers back in May with the election of Andy Burnham. Liverpool, Cambridgeshire, the Tees Valley, the West Midlands, Peterborough and the West of England are also soon to receive such powers. Yet Yorkshire is still waiting for its very own Yexit.
Early calls for Yorkshire devolution
The possibility of any sort of devolution for Yorkshire was first mentioned back in 2002 under the Labour government’s plans to create regional assemblies modelled on the Greater London Assembly. However, after the North East overwhelmingly voted against plans for devolved powers in their region, (a massive 78% saying ‘no’ to the idea), even the chance of Yorkshire having a vote was gone.
Around eight years later the Yorkshire Devolution Movement (YDM) was formed, and the conversation restarted. The YDM is a politically neutral pressure group campaigning for devolution to the county of Yorkshire as a whole.
“We will welcome any move we consider to be a step toward achieving these goals,” says Nigel Sollitt, Chair of the YDM. “This is why we currently support so called ‘One-Yorkshire’ devolution. Although it offers neither the exact model nor geography of devolution we ultimately want, it does bring some form of devolution to most of the traditional county. Once established, we would then continue to campaign for the model of devolution to be changed to a directly elected parliament and for the missing parts of Yorkshire to be included.”
Back in 2015 former chancellor George Osborne proposed the idea of a Northern Powerhouse, which involved delivering devolved powers to various areas, including Manchester, Liverpool and Yorkshire. Five Yorkshire based bids were submitted, with an agreement signed with leaders of the Sheffield City Region to install a directly elected mayor and devolve powers, that was backed by Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster authorities.
However, by August 2017, and with Osborne now busy running the London Evening Standard, the deal was thrown into disrepute as Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham leaders withdrew support and switched to the One Yorkshire proposal instead.
“The Government has offered a decentralisation of sorts to Sheffield but we feel it is divisive, undemocratic and hardly meaningful,” says Stewart Arnold, Leader of the Yorkshire Party, a political party that regularly contest seats at elections across the region. “Many agree with us. In fact, earlier in the year, 17 of 20 council leaders in Yorkshire agreed a One Yorkshire deal was preferable to the city region option. Business, the TUC, many individuals in political parties and the general public agree: if devolution comes to Yorkshire it should be to the whole of Yorkshire.”
The One Yorkshire proposal, first outlined on Yorkshire Day itself, (1 August), would see a similar structure to the devolution in Liverpool and Greater Manchester but across the whole of the county. One directly elected mayor would oversee transport, economic development and more across the region.
“We wouldn’t want to see Yorkshire sliced up in the way the Government proposes,” Stewart continues. “Yorkshire has a real sense of identity, history and community. It has a population of over five million people which is the same size as Scotland and an economy of over £100bn. Also, it has a global brand cognisance. We want tried and tested first class devolution just as the Scots and Welsh have.”
No devolution, no hope?
But does Yorkshire need devolution? As it is home to three of the UK’s largest cities, would have finished 12th in the 2012 Olympics on its own and has a population greater than Scotland, (three things all Yorkshire folk will no doubt tell you), it should be doing fine. The county even managed to lure the Tour de France to the region a few years ago.
Yet HM Treasury figures show that public spending per head in Yorkshire and the Humber is just £8,791 a year. That is much less than London (£10,129) but what is more concerning to Yorkshire is that it is lower than the North West (£9,387) and the North East (£9,472). With devolved powers Yorkshire could surely benefit, as the Sheffield City Region included plans for access to a £900 million spending pot and control over strategic planning.
“Without devolution there is every probability Yorkshire could fall further behind the rest of the country,” Stewart adds. “Already, Yorkshire – across a whole range of economic and social indicators – is one of the worst performing English regions. This needs to change. We need to take control of our own destiny and set our own priorities just as they have done – successfully – in Scotland. Yorkshire suffers from not having a voice when it comes to the big decisions. Andy Burnham is ubiquitous in speaking up for Manchester by contrast.”
Sollitt has similar feelings too: “We are confident that devolution to Yorkshire will come but the longer it is denied, the longer Yorkshire will be neglected by Whitehall and the longer Yorkshire, and in turn the UK, will fail to realise their social, economic and environmental potential. In brief, by denying One Yorkshire devolution, the government is cutting its nose off to spite its face!”
Next steps for Yorkshire devolution
There has been some progress towards devolved powers being delivered to Yorkshire, with a special Commons debate on the subject in October. However, current Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, (and MP for Rossendale and Darwen, over in Lancashire, no less), maintained the government’s stance that a One Yorkshire deal involving South Yorkshire councils will not be entertained. Instead they will push ahead with the Sheffield City Region plan, with the Conservative Party already selecting a candidate for the proposed mayoral election in May 2018.
Unsurprisingly, this has not pleased those backing the One Yorkshire campaign. Keighley MP John Grogan has written to the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu in an attempt to arrange a meeting between all those involved in the devolution process to come to some sort of agreement.
Until such a meeting happens or there is a governmental change of heart, it looks like Sheffield could be getting some kind of devolved powers in the near future, but any wider deal will have to wait. Should one be organised though, it could have a knock-on effect and see other regions make their own push for devolution, such as the North East.
A future capital
Given the power struggles and disagreements already going on, there are still many challenges ahead for God’s own county. And if they can’t decide on whom to include in the devolution plans, how are they going to agree on where such powers will be based?
“We believe the Yorkshire Parliament should be based somewhere that would avoid complications of local rivalries, somewhere acceptable to all parts of Yorkshire and somewhere to which everyone in Yorkshire can identify,” summarises Nigel. “There can only be one candidate for this and that is the City that has been our capital for over a thousand years, the city that gave our county its name: York.”