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Engagement will only happen if the powers that be want to engage

January 27, 2016

Stewart Arnold, Vice Chair of the Yorkshire Devolution Movement, writes about his experiences at a recent one day event on devolution.

I went over to the one day event on devolution titled ‘Power to the North? Prospects and Challenges to Devolution & City Deals in the North of England’ at the University of Leeds last Friday.

 

The aim of the event, organised by the White Rose Consortium for the North of England (WRCN), was, according to the blurb, ‘to gather views from across Yorkshire and the North of England on devolution, the Northern Powerhouse, and ‘City Deals’, so as to reflect on and understand the impact, potential and challenges of the new agenda’.

 

A part of this there was a keynote speech from Lord Kerslake, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group’s (APPG) inquiry on reform, decentralisation and devolution. Lord Kerslake, formerly of these parts (he was Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council from 1997-2008) spoke well enough and made a comment along the lines of ‘how do we stop this being a conversation between the powerful and become one with the public?’. Much applause at this point but we didn’t realise he was being ironic because as soon as his speech was finished, pausing only for a plate of sandwiches at the lunch, he was off!

 

This was a pity because the event provided an opportunity to hear from a wide range of speakers: academics, politicians, local government officers, representatives of campaign groups and NGOs and others. A majority of those speaking called for a proper engagement with the people of Yorkshire around this ‘devolution’ debate and there was palpable frustration that such a ‘conversation’ or even ‘constitutional convention’ could not happen given the apparent lack of leadership and resources’. People were reminded later in the day how interesting the Citizens Assembly projects were in relation to the debate. The outcomes of the Assembly North (in Sheffield) have been subject to a previous blog but by way of a reminder the Assembly agreed, after several days of consideration, on the following recommendations:

 

  • The majority of the members advocate a directly elected assembly for Yorkshire with substantial powers, including some tax-raising and law-making powers.

 

  • Members also support a range of measures designed to enhance public participation in local and regional decision-making.

 

  • The majority of members do not support the proposed devolution deal in its current form.

 

In similar fashion to Lord Kerslake, Councillor Box and Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, did not tarry for long after giving their presentations. Councillor Box, was in combative form, although quite clearly delusional. He made the comment that ‘support for Yorkshire brand was nostalgia’, he said he both opposed and supported the building of HS2 and that there was no single Yorkshire economy. Sadly, because of his quick exit, I was unable to remind him of his comment from ten years ago when he was Yorkshire and Humber Assembly chairman:

 

“The challenges to create that future remain the same and it is only by working on important issues such as transport, economic development, rural matters and together as a region that we can hope to tackle them and address the prosperity gap between the North and the South.”

 

I can only assume Peter Box’s body has been taken over by aliens in the intervening ten years.

 

There were a number of very good contributions: Peter Salveson, Diana Wallis, Lord Haskins and Professor Martin Smith all made very salient points. Martin Smith, from York University, summed up the current situation when he said: ‘This process is not about devolution rather it is about managing local economic growth’.

 

The whole event was filmed with a view to broadcasting it at a later date. I would recommend picking this up. There was also the launch of a booklet: The Politics of the North: Governance, territory and identity in Northern England’. Available here http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Politics-of-the-North-Hayton-Giovannini-Berry.pdf

 

Finally, I would say, in support of the event how good it is to see the whole debate on devolution now occupying the minds of many people in what I would call the ‘mainstream’ rather than those traditionally on the fringe of this enterprise. I remember back in the summer of 2013 trying to sell the idea of a ‘devolution conference’ to the Politics Department at Hull University who, while interested enough, felt the theme didn’t fit with their research priorities. So it was Arianna Giovannini at Huddersfield who took this up and a year ago organised a conference at Huddersfield with the title ‘Decentralisation and the future of Yorkshire’. Those involved in the Yorkshire devolution campaign should be thankful to her and other colleagues who have driven this forwards and in turn produced some very interesting and useful research along the way.

 

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