Jim McMahon, the new Labour MP for Oldham West is right to express his “deep unease” about the Northern Powerhouse. However it is the only game in town right now and just over the Pennines from his town the pressure is on Leeds City Region to get a similar deal to Greater Manchester’s.
Last week a conference in Leeds frankly discussed the difficulties involved. The background is that there are broadly two rival views on the way forward for Yorkshire. One believes that the county has a brand to die for and needs a single area covering West, North and East Yorkshire. Sheffield and South Yorkshire already have a deal. The other vision is for a Leeds City Region which includes Harrogate, Craven, York and Selby. The argument here is that the North’s best hope is in harnessing the energy of its cities whilst the more rural areas take a slower path to devolution.
Tom Riordan, the able Chief Executive of Leeds City Council is in no doubt he needs the power and resources devolution can bring. The city is without a tram system or adequate flood defences for instance. He is not obsessed with rivalry with Manchester pointing to major differences between the two cities. Leeds is five times as large geographically with large communities nearby like Bradford and Huddersfield. He thinks press reports of infighting are exaggerated but acknowledges there is a problem with the government’s insistence on an elected mayor. The concept was rejected for the City of Leeds three years ago and it is an arguable point whether Chancellor George Osborne can say he has a General Election mandate to insist that his mayoral model covers a wider geographical area.
Riordan insists he is not anti the Yorkshire concept pointing to the county wide cooperation that brought the Tour de France to the county with such brilliant success but the city versus county argument remains fierce. Peter Box, the chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority thinks the county has four distinct economies and with South Yorkshire having already gone its own way, the Greater Yorkshire model is flawed. This is contested by Lord Haskins, the former boss of Northern Foods and now chair of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership. He is a firm believer that the Yorkshire brand has worldwide recognition and should have governance structures to match to promote the county particularly for business in Europe.
While the rest of the county struggles to get its act together it is interesting to look at what is happening in Sheffield. Events there may portend issues that may arise in the Liverpool City and Greater Manchester regions as elections approach for an elected mayor next year. A row has broken out over whether the elected mayor for the whole city region has a veto over all matters within the city itself.
It is also worthy of note that each of these devolution deals is different. Sheffield’s City Region mayor has not been combined with the Police and Crime Commissioner nor could they get vital powers over 16 to 18 year old skills powers. This is why MP Jim McMahon is deeply uneasy about the devolution project which lacks a national framework and coherence.