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.

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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.

Yorkshire First Wakefield Branch Meeting – This Thursday

It’s rude to eavesdrop, but it’s not such a crime for a conversation to catch your ear when it’s conducted rather loudly. I was in a cafe on Saturday and a group of men in their 60s/70s were discussing politics at the next table. Some of the things they were saying really resonated, reaffirming my belief that lots of people in this part of the country have the same attitudes towards the North/South mess we’re embroiled in.

They were talking about Boris Johnson and how he thinks the country stops at Watford. Well, yes. As they went on to say, London may be the capital, but that doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all. The rest of us have got something to offer. The next recipient of their vitriol was HS2 – they seem completely unconvinced that it’ll ever make it up to Leeds and will actually do what it’s meant to do (that is, benefit the North of England if you’ve forgotten – I know I had). The overall opinion of these men seemed to be that decisions were being made by people in London who ‘don’t understand’ the North.

If I’d been a little braver I would’ve started up a conversation, but that’s an odd thing to do randomly in one of your favourite cafes. However, it has convinced me that the members of Yorkshire First are definitely not talking to an empty room. We’re on the same page as a lot of people and we’re talking sense.

So, with that in mind, if anybody fancies getting a little more involved with us, the next Wakefield Branch Meeting will be held at The Holmfield Arms on Thursday 5th March at 7pm. All welcome, even if you don’t know how deeply you want to be involved in the campaign. We’ve got a chance to make a difference in two months and show the mainstream parties that their benevolent view of devolution and what’s best for us really won’t do.

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.

Yorkshire First – Standing Up To Be Counted

So, barring problems with nominations or any other twists and turns in the saga that constitutes my life at the moment, it gives me great pleasure to tell you I’m intending to stand as a candidate in the local elections in May for Yorkshire First.

For those of you who haven’t heard of YF, they are a group of people from across the political spectrum who are united in their belief that Yorkshire folk deserve more control over our own destinies. A core belief is the principle of devolution to the lowest feasible level; that is, bringing decision-making closer to the people that those decisions affect.

It’s early days and there’s a long time to go before May. However, I’m really looking forward to working with Yorkshire First and getting our message out there. No doubt I’ll post much more regularly in the coming months and I’d highly recommend having a nose around the main website linked above. There are a number of things you can do to get involved if you like the look of what you see – sign the Yorkshire Pledge, donate to the party or give up some time to help us distribute leaflets. Wakefield is, of course, my patch, but if you want to pitch in anywhere in Yorkshire I’ll try and pass you on to someone a little more local to you or you can contact the party direct.

You’ll hear a lot more about Yorkshire First in the next few months – keep your eyes peeled.

Musings on Elected Mayors for ‘Northern Powerhouses’

Ever get the feeling politicians aren’t listening? Sorry, sorry, stupid question. This post could last forever if I go into detail on every single thing. My main criticism today is this plan for an elected mayor of Greater Manchester which emerged yesterday.

Two years ago, Manchester and many other cities around the country (Wakefield included) said no to an elected mayor in referendums. Only Bristol wanted one and I’m not sure how that’s worked out for them. Nevertheless, yesterday George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have an elected mayor, probably from 2017 onwards. Admittedly, it’s a slightly different proposal than the one previously offered but it’s still an elected mayor and the people of the Manchester area seem to be getting no choice in the matter.

The fact that the leaders of the ten councils affected have agreed to the proposals is worrying in itself. In my experience, politicians only vote for something which is good for politicians (side note: all the council leaders in this area seem to be white men) and I hear dissent is already coming from areas like Trafford.

For me, I suppose, it’s about the concentration of power and the guzzling up of resources. If – as seems likely if Greater Manchester is deemed a success – the experiment was replicated in other areas of the North, there is no prize for guessing what would happen. Power concentrates into one single area. Wakefield already suffers from this with the number of West Yorkshire initiatives centred on Leeds. A ‘Greater Leeds’ area would inevitably take in Wakefield. Not only are we their closest neighbour but as far as transport links etc go, we are fundamental to any success in terms of joined-up policy. Now, personally, I’m sick of being lumped in with Leeds. Wakefield is on its way to thriving again (despite the best efforts of our council to hamper such progress) and I don’t want us to become an outpost of a ‘Northern powerhouse’. Every city and town in the North should be considered its own powerhouse.

So I dislike the prospect of linking areas together with little regard for their individuality. However, I do favour more regional devolution based on assemblies rather than the concentration of power in one person in one area. Only this way can cities like Wakefield get decent representation alongside their more statuesque neighbours (as an aside I DO NOT agree with Labour’s regional senate proposals but that’s an argument for another day).

On the one hand, I appreciate the government finally recognising that the North needs to be seen as something other than ‘not the South East’. On the other, these decisions are so important that I don’t want George Osborne agreeing to them with a bunch of white, mostly middle-aged men, who I suspect don’t have the best interests of their areas at heart.

Three Points on English Devolution Debate

Social media has, of course, been buzzing with comment over the last few days. A lot of it is angry or frustrated, some of it makes sense and the level of Twitter sarcasm has just shot up to new levels. I’ve been watching things zip past me and thinking. These are three things that emerged from that pondering. There was a fourth but it slipped into the ether.

  1. Many people are criticising those wanting devolution for aspiring to create new ‘tiers of bureaucracy’. That’s certainly not the type of devolution I’m in favour of. I want powers passed down which would leave Westminster with relatively little to do. That’s why, in my post on Friday, I suggested a boundary reform which would shrink the number of MPs. On top of this, I’d only envisage them sitting as and when needed – and being paid accordingly. Those professional politicians should be happy – it would allow them to take on all those directorships they currently hold without it seeming like they were neglecting their constituents.
  2. I’ve seen several references to English devolution ‘taking over the debate’. I’m sorry, haven’t we just spent two and a half years discussing Scotland? If they’re incapable of sharing the limelight or, if they want this special status of being the only country in the UK with proper devolution, then we have a problem of an entirely different colour.
  3. Labour are fast boxing themselves into a corner. A number of the big guns just can’t engage with the debate because they’re stuck peddling Miliband’s line. The debate will rumble on throughout the conference and if Miliband doesn’t come up with some answers then he’s going to become even more of an irrelevance.

Could I also ask you to take a look at this site which I’m involved with and offer your thoughts? Either here or there.