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We have a once in a generation opportunity to revitalise our democracy and engage the people of Yorkshire in the process

November 11, 2015

Stewart Arnold, Deputy Leader of Yorkshire First and former Chair of the Campaign for Yorkshire writes about current developments in the devolution debate

H&S

As reported on this blog a couple of days ago, the Citizens’ Assembly in Sheffield voted on Sunday for a directly elected regional assembly for Yorkshire as its preferred option of the different potential devolution arrangements presented in depth over two weekends. Of course, that is much the preferred arrangement for YDM too, but the decision also shows how far the debate on devolution has moved on in the space of less than two years.

Since April last year, when Yorkshire First was first set up, the main aim has been to make the case for decision making in key and important policy issues to be dragged away from London and made here in Yorkshire instead. We wanted to remain open as to exactly how this was to be delivered; we deliberately didn’t want to get sidelined by structures and procedures.

As time has gone on, however, although the argument for greater decision making in Yorkshire has been made successfully, the result has come with a very prescriptive procedure. In other words, just what we wanted to avoid. Instead of a wide ranging discussion amongst all the people in Yorkshire, which is something Yorkshire First has been advocating all along, we have a Government that has set out the terms for devolution. In effect, these are joint arrangements of local authorities headed by an elected Mayor. Sheffield has already signed up to this and Leeds is pushing to be the next. Of course, both deals leave much of the rest of Yorkshire out. As well as being divisive, these deals are undemocratic. Nowhere has the public been consulted on these arrangements. In fact, it’s worse than that, because where the people have been consulted (in 2012 on whether they wanted elected Mayors) their views have been totally ignored. So the cynicism with which the people of Yorkshire see the devolution process now on offer is understandable. A cynicism which may well extend to the turnout for the Mayoral election itself in two years time, especially if the choice for the post is between various retreads and has-beens from all parties.

To us at Yorkshire First this is an opportunity missed. Here was the possibility to engage people in a process to determine what they want their communities to look like over the next generation. This was a process which after all worked well in Scotland during their Constitutional Convention which met over six years to thrash out a blueprint for devolution that took the people along with it. And of course a process which worked so well in the Scottish referendum itself just a year ago: packed town hall meetings, marches, online campaigns and debates amongst others. People were engaged in ways it didn’t seem possible. All this resulted in an unprecedented 85% turn out. Now compare that democratic process to the backroom stitch up we face in Yorkshire.

It’s not too late to push for the best option for Yorkshire and its people. An option which has been tried and tested in other parts of the UK – a directly elected, accountable and transparent assembly or parliament. After all Yorkshire does have recognisable boundaries going back over a thousand years. It has a real sense of identity and it has a population of five million people, the same as Scotland and several very successful European countries. However, in going down this route of a parliament we do not have to replicate Westminster in York. Indeed we would start with a blank sheet of paper as to how we might do our politics in a way that is fit for the 21st century.

There is a lot that is immediately obvious when it comes to avoiding the worst elements of the Westminster. For example, a Yorkshire parliament should be a single chamber (there would be no upper house), proper scrutiny committees giving backbenchers jobs to do in the parliament itself and thus reducing the opportunity to take on second jobs and there would be a fair voting system to reflect who the people want to represent them. In addition, this fair voting system should be extended to local councils too so no more one party rotten boroughs.

We could do even more to make our parliament even more inclusive. For example, we could extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. We could even draw some of our representatives by lots such as we do with juries and which would reduce over-representation of politically active groups. Yorkshire First also wants to see more public involvement through the use of citizen’s initiatives, referendums and other forms of participation

People will say we don’t more politicians. Well I would say we don’t want more out of touch Westminster MPs who come with the baggage of flipping second homes, false accounting and duck houses. It’s no coincidence that before the General Election in May, three of the four most popular UK politicians were Alec Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson. All local politicians close to the communities they represent and not MPs at the time.

The current devolution process in Yorkshire has been dominated by how it will help our economy. There is nothing wrong with that of course but it could be so much more. We have a once in a generation opportunity to revitalise our democracy and engage the people of Yorkshire in the process. It’s still possible if the people make their voices heard.

 

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One Comment
  1. I am a passionate Yorkshireman, who isn’t? But I wonder just who this campaign is talking to. Sure the powers-that-be in London are listening, or at least pretending to, but the people who should be rising up, the genereal public of Yorkshire, most certainly are not. And that, I am sure, suits Westminster just fine. Why do I say this? Today, I asked 20 people, ordinary Yorkshire ‘folk’ and asked if they knew about its campaign for devolution (of some kind); the result was total ignorance. Until the general public get on board, and then behind the campaign I fear it will progress slowly and only at the pace and destination already determined by the London mandarins. The good news is ignorance is not apathy meaning I believe that the good people of Yorkshire would get behind a campaign if only they a) knew about it and b) believed in it.

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