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 Results in Wakefield

There’s plenty to be digested on both a local and national level and I aim to do that gradually over the next few weeks. However, I thought readers might be interested in how Yorkshire First performed in Wakefield.

I stood in my home ward of Wakefield North which is a bit of a battleground for UKIP these days. The results over the years have shifted in favour of the UKIP candidate (who is a thoroughly nice chap), though obviously Wakefield is a Labour stronghold. 54 seats out of 63 are currently held by Labour with the Conservatives having 6, UKIP 2 and 1 Independent sitting on the council. The lack of opposition is something for a future post though. In the meantime, here are the results from my ward:

Green Party – 395 (6.3%)
Yorkshire First – 161 (2.6%)
Conservative Party – 1495 (23.9%)
Labour Party – 2666 (42.6%)
TUSC – 216 (3.5%)
UKIP – 1319 (21.1%)

For me, 2.6% is a great start. With it being something of a three-way battle, it’s heartening to know that over 150 people put a cross next to my name instead of the big three. It’s also a varied field with 12.4% of the vote going to the three smaller parties.

Next, my colleague Martin Roberts stood in parliamentary, district and parish elections. This is the result from his parliamentary seat, Hemsworth:

UKIP – 8565 (20.2%)
Liberal Democrats – 1357 (3.2%)
Conservative Party – 9694 (22.9%)
Yorkshire First – 1018 (2.4%)
Labour Party 21772 – (51.3%)

To get over 1000 votes is phenomenal and I’m really proud of Martin. He’s been a very active campaigner in the last few months and I think that dedication showed here. Labour were always going to win the seat but to take 2.4% of votes in a parliamentary election is brilliant. In the district council elections he stood for the ward of Ackworth, North Elmsall and Upton:

Labour Party – 3437 (45.7%)
Conservative Party – 2081 (27.7%)
Yorkshire First – 493 (6.6%)
UKIP – 1507 (20.0%)

Again, this is excellent and there are definitely lessons to be taken from that result. As for the parish ward of Ackworth – Moor Top, I won’t list the results of all 16 candidates (voters get up to eight choices per ballot paper) but here is Martin’s result:

Yorkshire First – 591 (5.2%)

There were 8 Labour candidates on the ballot paper, 6 of whom were elected and, indeed, many of the ballot papers I saw voted primarily for Labour candidates above all others. In parish council elections that’s certainly a consideration for the future. Nevertheless, that’s another good result for Martin.

Our final candidate in the Wakefield district was Arnie Craven who stood in the parliamentary seat of Morley and Outwood (this seat is half Leeds and half Wakefield). Now, if that seat wasn’t famous on Thursday morning it was by Friday afternoon. The incumbent Labour MP (and Shadow Chancellor) Ed Balls lost his seat and there’s something very interesting about this result:

Labour – 18354 (38.0%)
Yorkshire First – 479 (1.0%)
UKIP – 7951 (16.5%)
Green Party – 1264 (2.6%)
Conservative Party – 18776 (38.9%)
Liberal Democrats – 1426 (3.0%)

So Ed Balls lost by 422 votes and Arnie got 479. I’m not saying that people who voted for him may have otherwise voted for Labour but it’s a compelling figure nonetheless and it shows how smaller parties can chop into the vote share of the mainstream.

Those are the results for our district. Plenty to chew over and may I say a personal thank you to Martin and Arnie for standing alongside me as Yorkshire First candidates in this election.

Danger for The Orangery

I read with alarm last week that Beam, the arts charity which has been running The Orangery for years, have decided to stop running events out of the site at Easter and will pull out entirely when their lease runs out next year. I’m very far from blaming Beam for this – they’ve done a brilliant job and can no longer maintain the costs of the building on their own. They’re currently in talks with the council to resolve the issue and I truly hope some sort of resolution can be found.

The Orangery is not only a beautiful building but Beam have made it into an arts hub and, really, more of a community hub. Though I didn’t attend their outdoor screenings of films last summer, it was a pleasure to walk past and see so many people in the grounds enjoying themselves. I’ve attended a few events there now and I found it a brilliant atmosphere to read work in during the Lit Fest last September.

Of course, Wakefield Council is under financial pressure. Every council across the country is struggling in one way or another. However, in the Wakefield Express this week representatives were proudly trumpeting the demolition of Rutland Mill to make way for a public square. This is on top of various regeneration projects at the other end of town, including the utterly ridiculous idea to turn the old police station on Wood Street into a luxury hotel. That’s a rant for another day, though I will say that people are far more likely to visit the luxury hotel that Bretton Hall will be transformed into shortly rather than one in the centre of Wakefield where they will no doubt get lost in the one-way system before managing to find it. The regeneration of the Civic Gateway is, in some respects, vital. The old court building, now bought back from the developers who allowed it to fall into disrepair, is incredibly important to fix what has become a blight on Wood Street in recent years. Even so, I don’t think all this regeneration should take precedence over The Orangery and the very good work Beam does there.

So, to return to this regeneration of Rutland Mill – fine for a future project, but how about we hasten those plans (are there still plans or have they fallen by the wayside?) to regenerate the old Wakefield Westgate station car park into a public space which would lead up to The Orangery and provide a gorgeous accompaniment to the Westgate Chapel. Both The Orangery and the chapel have been isolated to an extent by the construction of Mulberry Way and the new train station. Creating this green space rapidly could have a knock-on effect at The Orangery – it’s a lovely place for a wedding or an event in itself but incorporate an expansive public space into the equation and it could be outstanding. One way to help The Orangery is to redevelop the grubby area outside of it. That counts as regeneration – so what’s the problem?

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.

A Replacement for Pacer Trains?

The plan to refit former London Underground trains and sell them to the operators bidding for the northern franchise has caused a little consternation. They’re being offered as a replacement for the Pacer trains that are cramped, cold and were supposed to be a ‘temporary’ solution when they were introduced in the 1980s. These refitted tube trains are allegedly a third cheaper than building new ones, with the shells of the carriages kept and everything else refurbished. The idea is that no one will know these trains were once on the District Line, but it still feels like Yorkshire is inheriting aged rolling stock from London while they can get shiny new trains for their routes.

From watching last night’s Look North I understand that these trains may only be a short-term solution in themselves. The much-discussed electrification of the lines in this region would require fresh stock in a few years so, essentially, these trains would be another stopgap. Now, I know that the electrification issue is as hilarious as the promised replacement of the Pacer trains for the last twenty years but, for a moment, let’s take them at their word and accept that the intended electrification will happen.

Why not rush the electrification through as soon as possible then upgrade the stock from then on? At the risk of banging my old drum, let’s prioritise that above wasting money on HS2. If they’re really serious about investing in transport infrastructure in the north then why not?

Out Leafleting

Yesterday afternoon I was out for a few hours delivering Yorkshire First leaflets in the St. John’s area of my ward. It was my first time leafleting and it was actually a really enjoyable experience. I like delving into places and, though the rabbit warren got a little disorientating at times, we had a productive afternoon with over 600 leaflets delivered.

We’ll be doing it again in a different part of the Wakefield North ward in a few weeks. If you fancy joining in, let me know and I’ll email you the when and where. I can’t guarantee sunshine but I can guarantee gates that nearly chop your fingers off. Honestly, very enjoyable.

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