Special report: Is devolution the answer to Yorkshire’s problems?

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Yorkshire is doing better than ever – we hosted the Tour de France, we boast the highest number of Michelin stars outside of London and if we had competed as a nation in the 2012 Olympics we would have come 12th.

We have a proud regional identity, but sandwiched between Scotland and the south-east, are we being ignored? Is it time we had more powers for ourselves?

More and more powers are being devolved to Scotland in the wake of the independence debate, London has its own assembly and mayor and can sometimes seem like a small state all by itself. Now people in Yorkshire and the north are beginning to ask: do we want some of that too?

Certainly, most of the people at Decentralisation and the Future of Yorkshire, an event organised by the University of Huddersfield, thought so.

The thought of a day-long symposium on the future of regional devolution may not set your pulse racing, but the speakers were passionate about it and the potential benefits of more powers in the north.

Think about it this way – do you get angry about the growing inequality between the north and London and the south-east? London gets twice as much investment as anywhere else in the country; the capital is building new rail routes all the time while ageing trains that are full to bursting still trundle between Leeds and Manchester.

And are you fed up with the same old faces in Westminster arguing between themselves?

Keynote speaker Ed Cox, from Institute for Public Policy Research North, said devolution could help solve those problems.

“Devolved government brings politics closer to the people by pushing power downwards,” he said. More powers would drive economic growth and tackle the north-south divide, Mr Cox added.

Many of the speakers were clear: Britain is one of the most heavily centralised states in the Western world and they wanted a new way – a federal Britain that looked like the more prosperous and equal societies of Germany and nations of Scandinavia.

The All-Party Parliamentary Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire Group has been set-up to fight the case for the benefits of devolution, concentrating on transport, skills and support for business.

One of its members, Conservative Colne Valley MP Jason McCartney, said he looked at London’s prosperity under its mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson and thought: “I want a bit of that for our area!”

“I’m absolutely fed up of the appalling pace of trains and the clogged-up M62,” he added.

Kirklees Council leader David Sheard spoke on a later panel, lambasting a Britain where power is centralised in London.

“We have a Stalinist central government that wants to micro-manage everything in the local area,” he said.

“Our education system – schools which are down the road are being managed in central London.”

Coun Sheard also said Kirklees’ planning structure – the LDF – was in tatters because the powerful in Westminster were really in control.

“They are solutions that work in London that don’t work in other parts of the country,” he added.

Chancellor George Osborne’s call for a ‘northern powerhouse’ and a HS3 rail link between Leeds and Manchester were dismissed by some as pre-election posturing. Questions were also asked about how genuine Westminster’s desire to let go of powers to the regions really was.

But how would we administer greater powers in Yorkshire? Could it be an elected mayor, like Boris, or a regional assembly? Another theme of the day was whether people wanted more politicians at a local level and another layer of bureaucracy. Many saw this as a misleading question, however; if you ask people if they want more bureaucracy, of course they will say no. But if you argue devolution can improve people’s lives – jobs, health services, transport and the police – you have a different proposition.

Gary Verity, Welcome to Yorkshire chief and key figure in the Grand Depart, could be Yorkshire’s mayor, Mr McCartney suggested.

While delegates were naturally split on the means that would deliver devolution, everyone was agreed that it was a vital end for the future of Yorkshire. After all, Scotland’s population is roughly the same as ours – so if they can do it, why can’t we? Manchester, too, is punching above its weight - the city has signed a devolution deal with the government, as has Sheffield. Leeds’ is expected soon.

Moves have already been made in the right direction – the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA - made up of Kirklees, Bradford, Calderdale, Leeds and Wakefield councils) is fighting for funding for transport schemes in Kirklees and beyond.

But some argued the benefits, while worthwhile, are piecemeal.

Coun Sheard, who is a member of WYCA, said: “We know more about our region than the civil service sat in London know about it.

“These politicians can’t see past Milton Keynes.

“For the region to survive we have to get powers away from London.”