Devolution in Yorkshire: the revolution has yet to come

by Dr Arianna Giovannini

29 Nov 2017

The process of devolution across England can be described as uneven and complex. The governance of England now resembles a patchwork of ad hoc spatial fixes that do not cover all areas and are characterised by profound differences in terms of powers, funding and responsibilities. Bespoke devolution deals have been agreed behind closed doors between central government and local authorities. As a result, multiple, new, and often overlapping structures (combined authorities, metro mayors, and broader agendas such as the Northern Powerhouse) have been added to what is, in practice, and already overcrowded system of governance.

The aim of this process, driven by former Chancellor Rt Hon George Osborne, was to change the way in which England is governed, giving localities the levers to grow their economy and enhance democracy. Despite the piecemeal approach outlined above, in some areas ‘devo deals’ have been welcomed as an opportunity to empower localities and improve local governance. Greater Manchester is a case in point here. The election of Andy Burnham as metro mayor in May 2017 has opened the way to profound changes in the area, and may be seen as a way to gain further powers in the future.  

Whilst most of the debate on devolution in England seems to focus on successes, less light has been shed so far on cases of ‘failure’. However, there is a great deal to be learned from failure – especially the institutional, political, economic and democratic implications of devolution. Analysing what has been called the ‘Yorkshire devolution saga’ is thus a helpful exercise.

Grappling with the Yorkshire saga: the story so far

In many respects, devolution in Yorkshire is a microcosm of English devolution more widely. Yorkshire epitomises all the issues that can emerge when imposing a plan of governance restructuring from the top-down, within a guidance-lite framework and a stubborn economic focus. The process has unfolded with considerable ebbs and flows in the region, and is still largely in flux (for an in-depth analysis, see Chapter 7 in this volume).

A first phase of ‘devo enthusiasm’, occurred in 2015. This culminated with the submission of three proposed devolution deals: Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (SCR; including South Yorkshire plus Chesterfield in Derbyshire and Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire), West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA; covering the Leeds City Region area), and a Greater Yorkshire Deal (West Yorkshire, plus North Yorkshire, East Riding and Hull). South Yorkshire led the way and, after negotiations between SCR and the Treasury, the Combined Authority (CA) agreed a deal in October 2015. West Yorkshire took a different approach, including a number of ambitious ‘asks’ in its deal proposal. In this phase, a Greater Yorkshire deal, pushed in particular by Hull and the East Riding in an attempt at not being ‘left behind’, did not gain traction. It was dismissed by the WYCA and was never seriously considered by the government. In 2016, SCR continued to press ahead with its devo deal, and an order was passed in the summer in Parliament, securing the election of a metro mayor for May 2017. Meanwhile, WYCA remained hopeful about its deal, whilst the East Riding and Hull were kept in limbo, with no real prospect of being included in any deal.

However, progress has slowed considerably since December 2016, leading to a phase of ‘convolution’. In the first place, the composition of the SCR Combined Authority was challenged by Derbyshire County Council, who applied for a judicial review of Chesterfield’s decision to join it, as a statutory member along with Bassetlaw. In December 2016, the High Court found that the process had to be re-run due to lack of appropriate public consultation. Eventually, in 2017, both Chesterfield and Bassetlaw pulled out of the deal, putting in jeopardy the future of devolution in the area. Following this, the election of a metro mayor in 2017 was postponed. Meanwhile Barnsley and Doncaster, SCR constituent members who had long been sceptical of the deal and of the introduction of a metro mayor, started to voice their concerns more loudly.

In addition, the lack of progress in Yorkshire has led to talk of a Yorkshire wide deal. The government’s lack of response, together with the anxieties around Brexit and changes at the helm of government, prompted local authorities in West Yorkshire to seek alternative solutions to secure a devo deal. As soon as SCR deal hit stalemate, WY leaders released an official statement, claiming that whilst their ambition to gain a devolution deal had repeatedly been thwarted by the lack of response from the government, they were determined not to be left behind. In the wake of this new impetus, they started to consider other options for devolution, looking now in a more favourable way at a ‘pan-Yorkshire’ deal. This development was welcomed by those areas (Hull and the East Riding, in particular) who had been left at the margins of the devolution debate. The government, however, proved far less enthusiastic about this proposition.

This process has paved the way to the present phase of ‘devo disarray’. At the moment, the SCR deal is navigating a difficult route through extremely choppy waters. After the withdrawal of Chesterfield and Bassetlaw, the Combined Authority has lost two key members. This has led other members such as Barnsley and Doncaster to argue that the deal is now “too small to work”, raising questions about their commitment to the plan. These frictions have emerged at institutional level, and the outcome of a difficult meeting of the Combined Authority in September 2017 had profound implications for the deal. Government has stated that, since legislation has been enacted in Parliament, a SCR mayor election will take place in May 2018. However, the mayor will have far less powers and funding available than those outlined in the agreement signed in 2015, as the original CA membership has changed. Thus, citizens in the SCR area will be called to the polls to vote for a new institution with very limited power at a cost of £1m. It is not hard to see how this could end up fuelling further dissatisfaction with politics among local citizens, and taint the whole idea of devolution.

As SCR deal started to fall apart, other council leaders began work on an alternative. In August 2017 17 council leaders of all hues from across Yorkshire, including Barnsley and Doncaster of SCR, agreed to work together and formed a ‘coalition of the willing’ to achieve a single devolution deal for the region. This group has sought to push for an ambitious ‘One Yorkshire deal’, with an open invitation – so far declined – for Sheffield and Rotherham to join in, and the support of some regional MPs. In autumn, Keighley MP John Grogan secured an adjournment debate in the Commons to present the case for a strong elected voice to champion the whole of Yorkshire. However, the government remains sceptical of this option, and the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse Jake Berry replied saying that the SCR devolution plan will go ahead and takes priority. Such resistance is political as well as strategic.

The proposal for a One Yorkshire deal is based on a model of devolution that is profoundly different from the deals established so far. It does not fit in with, and in many respects challenges, the current devolution agenda in terms of geography, remit, powers and structures. As such, it is unlikely to be endorsed by a government conscious of its vulnerability in parliament and trying to grapple with Brexit. Meanwhile, at local level, the commitment of some authorities to the coalition of the willing has been questioned, suggesting that leaders across the region still struggle to work together on long-term plans.

The future of the SCR deal remains uncertain. The One Yorkshire proposal has yet to make a breakthrough at the centre and in some localities. In addition, Barnsley and Doncaster have called referendums, which will be held in December. These will let the local population express a preference for whether they prefer to stick to the SCR option or back a One Yorkshire deal. This is the first attempt in Yorkshire to involve citizens in decisions that will affect the future of their areas, although it comes at a rather late stage, and after a long and complicated process. Neither the negotiations between local and central government nor discussion on devo deals at regional level have ever been ‘opened up’ to the public – even though citizens’ groups (e.g. We Share the Same Sky) are active in the region and have sought to make their voice heard. Northern think tanks, such as IPPR North, and academic research have tried to make the case for a more inclusive and sustainable system of devolution both in Yorkshire and across the North – but their suggestions have gained little traction among local and national leaders.

Thus, after more than two years of discussions, agreements, quarrels, frictions, factions, divisions and alliances over the future of devolution in Yorkshire, not a single area across the region has managed to strike any substantial deal. Hence, for the near future at least, Yorkshire will be left at the margins of the devolution process, whilst also standing out as the ‘hole in the Northern Powerhouse’ – emphasising the flaws inherent in the rationale, geographic footprint, economic and democratic prospects of these two tightly intertwined agendas.

Learning from failure: doing, un-doing, re-doing devolution.

As outlined above, there has been no sign of a devolution revolution in ‘God’s Own County’. If anything, what we have seen so far has been a complex and muddled process of doing, un-doing and re-doing devolution which is quite unique. There are several lessons that can be drawn from this example.

Firstly, the lack of any clear framework has hindered progress. The absence of a framework for devolution deals together with their contractual character (with few powers and many responsibilities), has allowed the government to lead the process, promoting a top-down, approach which has not resulted in local consensus. This is clearly reflected in the way in which the Treasury, in particular, fostered early discussions with SCR – promising a ‘fast track’ to a devo deal in return for compliance with the rules imposed by the centre and maintaining a degree of secrecy over the process, avoiding discussions on the deal with other areas in Yorkshire. Whilst this was accepted by Sheffield, other members of the CA did not fully buy into some of the ‘rules’, in particular the imposition of an elected mayor. Such frictions were never fully resolved and emerged at several stages – eventually leading to the current standstill. In addition, this approach has set local authorities across the region to compete against each other, fostering suspicion rather than cohesion. Governance rescaling and devolution can, and often are, delivered within a top-down approach, as is the case in many European countries. However, the case of Yorkshire shows that without a clear framework (which the government has promised yet failed to deliver), and short of substantial powers and funding, institution-building processes linked to devolution deals can prove problematic. They can promote rivalries and discourage cooperation, which should be one of the primary aims of devolution. Deals can be elite-led and fail to engage the public. They also see the government handling what is, in practice, a ‘crisis driven’ process of reform that lacks a clear roadmap and end point – resulting in contention, fragmentation and inequalities that can end up playing against the purported goal of devolution.

Secondly, place and identity matter. The case of Yorkshire clearly shows the limits of developing devolution around artificial geographies, based on functional economic areas. This approach is mainly based on agglomeration theories for which there is mixed evidence of success in terms of economic development. However, the story of the SCR deal indicates that territorial belonging, identity and community play an important role.  The geography upon which deals are based must make sense to those living there as well as to local and national elites. Indeed, as the case of SCR suggests, their success is tightly connected with the social spaces they are part of and help shape. These points have been picked up, to some extent, by the more recent proposal for a ‘One Yorkshire’ devo deal – as the presence of a regional identity and a Yorkshire brand are presented as part of its rationale. However, the lack of positive responses from the government suggests that economic principles still seem to take precedence.

Thirdly, democracy and public engagement should be central to the process of devolution. Throughout the process of deal making in Yorkshire, i.e. the phase of ‘devo enthusiasm’ described above, local and national leaders involved have considered these as something that can be ‘fabricated’ and adjusted around the new governance structures that underpin devo deals. One local actorexplained in an interview that the lack of public consultation in the deal making process was due to the view among leaders was that “first we’ll create the institutions, and then we’ll put democracy around it”. Again, the case of SCR suggests that this was a miscalculation – begging the question as to whether devolution can work without public support.

Devolution deals also require public support. If devo deals and the institutional architecture that underpins them do not resonate with, influence, or help to mobilise public opinion, they risk being new structures with little traction and accountability and will not attain the goal of empowering localities and boosting the economy from the bottom up. Place, identity and democracy may not be the ultimate goals of devolution in the current context, but considering them as ‘non-issues’ could create problems in the long term, delegitimising the devo deals from within.

Finally, the case of Yorkshire also sheds light on the politics of devolution deals. The way in which the deal agreement process has been set by the government has fostered a climate of competition by favouring secretive negotiations, partnerships and linking the discourse of devolution primarily to economic development. This has generated a space for new political frictions across and within local government and between local government, regional MPs and national politicians. This is especially the case on issues of power, leadership and authority connected with the introduction of elected metro mayors. As some have emphasised, Conservative Yorkshire MPs have vetoed the creation of new deals beyond SCR for fear of seeing their authority challenged by the potential emergence of a group of new Labour metro mayors (as would have most likely been the case if the WY deal went ahead, together with the SCR one). The lack of a strong parliamentary majority means that the current government cannot afford to lose the support of any MPs, and perhaps helps to explain both the leverage given to Tory Yorkshire MPs on the issue as well as the reluctance on the part of ministers to consider new/alternative deals beyond SCR. Similarly, at local level, divisions have emerged not only between Conservative and Labour, but also within members of the same party. In areas where Labour is the dominant force, intra-party rivalries have surfaced and ended up hampering devo deals, as illustrated by the case of SCR, and the ‘rebellion’ of Barnsley and Doncaster. More generally, local tribalism – based on a narrative that uses economic motifs to justify political ones, related in particular to metro mayors – has prevailed. The proposal for a One Yorkshire deal with cross-party backing seems to suggest that these issues could be overcome. However, recent uncertainties about the bulk of support behind this option indicate that party politics remains a crucial issue in areas with entrenched and diverse party loyalties such as Yorkshire. The main lesson here, is that, despite the government’s attempt at de-politicising devo deals, political interests lie at the heart of the devolution debate, and can determine policy success or failure.

Overall, the case of Yorkshire provides a set of important ‘warnings’ concerning the devolution agenda and its direction of travel. It sheds light on issues of governmental approach, geography, identity, democracy and party politics that can hamper the development of a sustainable system of governance able to work and deliver in the long term. More generally, it also suggests that disparities between those with and without deals are likely to widen in future. The 2017 budget clearly confirms this, showing that devolution can pay off for the areas that have managed to strike a deal – whilst those unsuccessful or excluded in the first round, such as local authorities in Yorkshire, will be marginalised and miss out. The emergence of winners and losers indicates that devo deals have so far failed to address what, in the view of their architects, was their primary aim: foster economic development throughout England, bridging persisting cleavages such as the North-South divide as well as gaps between big cities and other non-metropolitan areas.

The real ‘devolution revolution’ has thus yet to come. It will be delivered only if and when a more coherent strategy and vision, based on a clear framework that goes beyond purely economic motives and contractual partnerships, that works for all places, is embraced with full commitment.

Arianna Giovannini is Senior Lecturer in Local Politics in the Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University, where she is also a member of the Local Governance Research Unit (LRGU) and the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA). Her research focuses on territorial politics and identity, governance rescaling and devolution in the UK, with a particular interest in the case of Northern England. Her latest publication is the book Developing England’s North. The Political Economy of the Northern Powerhouse (co-edited with Craig Berry).


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