Positive Noises on Devolution from Wakefield Council

There was a small piece in Friday’s Wakefield Express about the plans being drawn up for “area councils” which will give powers to “small towns and areas across the district”. The aim is to have these new structures in place by April next year and council leader Peter Box is quoted as saying, “That sounds a long way away but what’s most important is that we get the plan right.” There’s a lot of sense in that statement.

Of course, as someone who wants more devolution I’m cautiously optimistic about these proposals. However, there are many questions to be answered which will determine the success or failure of these “area councils”. Foremost, I suppose, is that of accountability. Who will be on these councils? Will they be elected or merely headed by an “appropriate person” (so an already-elected local councillor or parish councillor)? How does this relate to democracy? The second pitfall, so to speak, is that of duplicating functions. The last thing we need is an extra layer of bureaucracy. One of the things that came up when I was discussing Yorkshire First during the election campaign was the idea of duplicating functions and how this costs more money. Essentially, that’s because it isn’t proper devolution. It’s cosmetic devolution benevolently bestowed by a central power that wants to keep hold of the reins. I think if you approach these two questions of accountability and bureaucracy in tandem then you go some way to creating an effective system of ultra-local governance.

There’s a long way to go before these proposals become reality and I’ll be keeping a close eye on developments and hopefully reporting them on this blog. It’s excellent to see Wakefield Council recognising the problem, however, and I commend them for that.

There is a sting in the tail of the article though. It concludes, “The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is also working to get powers devolved to the Leeds City Region.”

Ah… Me and the Leeds City Region go together like oil and water. Still, we’ll tackle that problem (again) on another day. Let’s just focus on the potential positives coming out of this push for devolution and not on the drive to make Leeds the centre of the universe.

Didn’t We Reject Elected Mayors Once Already?

Only one week into the new government and devolution is on the agenda again. And, once more, it’s sub-standard, based on what Westminster think will work with no regard to the reality of life anywhere north of the M25. A Cities Devolution Bill will apparently be included in the Queen’s Speech and will talk about the kind of city-based devolution that London-centric politicians seem to favour. It still irritates me as much as it ever did.

For a start, a precondition of these devolution deals will be the cities involved accepting an elected mayor. Let’s focus on West Yorkshire again as it’s my stomping ground. Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford all rejected the idea of elected mayors in 2012. Now, however, if we want any sort of regional powers we’re going to be lumbered with something we voted against. That’s democratic, isn’t it? Peter Box, both the Labour leader of Wakefield Council and the chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said this to the BBC: “We have been told if we want more devolution an elected mayor is the only option and clearly there’s a decision to be made on whether we remain as we are with the devolution we’ve been given already, or seek to gain more devolution.” Westminster arrogance has lost its power to acutely stun me but being forced to accept an elected mayor alongside whatever they condescend to offer us (whether it’s right for Yorkshire or not) is beyond arrogant. Peter Box thinks that any devolution is better than none? I’m not sure I agree. The wrong type of devolution can take power further from the people. Embedding it into a Leeds City Region would do nothing for the people of Wakefield.

Which brings me to my next sticking point. The BBC are covering these proposals quite comprehensively. In a third article on their site yesterday on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ they raised quite a few interesting points. One quote, from Tom Forth, an associate at ODILeeds positively infuriated me:

“To win business and public investment, I too often have to go to London…It’s insane. Each city in the North is too small to fight against that. We can only drag some of that investment northwards if we work together. If the people of Wigan, Pontefract and County Durham are better off commuting to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Newcastle then that’s what has to happen. So many young people in those places currently leave. A Northern Powerhouse gives them an option to stay.”

Okay… Where do I start? Yes, we need to work together. But it’s positively offensive to say that the only option for people in Pontefract is to commute to Leeds and that we should be happy with that. This is exactly why I loathe the idea of city regions: if you focus growth and effort on one central place then everything on the periphery just falls away. I mean, why bother trying to attract businesses and culture to Pontefract or other small towns when the people will just go to Leeds? And then the fact that Pontefract is suffering will just be batted back with the idea that you shouldn’t invest money in an area that has no hope when you could give more to Leeds that is thriving and making use of it. I hasten to add that I’m only using Pontefract as my example here because it was mentioned in the above piece and is nice and close to me. I know a bit about Pontefract. Which is, I’m sure, more than be said for most of the Westminster elite making these decisions.

No doubt I’ll be discussing this further in the coming weeks and months. I’m glad of one thing though: devolution is on the agenda. Even if it’s a highly-selective agenda.

Still All About Cities

I’ve only read the snippets of news about the UK Devolution Summit, summed up by this article in The Independent. However, my initial thoughts reflected my usual ones about central government’s concept of devolution – they mention ‘regions’ but, really, it’s all about the cities. Of course, the report they’re basing discussions on was commissioned by ten cities (the Core City Group) which straight away skews the findings in favour of city regions and city mayors; all that stuff that Westminster seem to think will work brilliantly up here. I wish they’d spend some time talking to us about it instead of pressing on regardless.

The phrase the Independent article highlights is ‘city states’. That makes me cringe. I say repeatedly that I don’t want Wakefield to become any more of a satellite to Leeds than we already are. It feels like we’re finally starting to come out of their shadow in terms of culture etc and I can just see that being reversed by a resurgence of the Leeds-centric attitude that permeates this area. I wonder if people in Rotherham feel the same about Sheffield, as much as I love the latter.

A ‘proper’ devolution deal shouldn’t have to ‘generously’ give power to cities. They shouldn’t be aiming for ‘powerhouse’ cities, as I discussed in this post in November, but for powerful regions. Yorkshire is a cohesive community. We’ve got our differences, yes, and that’s what makes every town unique, but we all fit together rather well. The rest of us aren’t merely extensions of the major cities, destined to pick around for the scraps of funding and decision-making left over. Or, that is, we shouldn’t be.