A dispatch from the One Yorkshire devolution conference
While the rest of the country sinks deeper into Brexit inertia, in Yorkshire, leaders are taking advantage of the perceived weakness of central government to push their case for regional devolution.
The government sees devolution very much in economic terms, and wants Yorkshire to devolve into four separate functional economic areas – Humberside, South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, and Leeds City Region.
But most of Yorkshire’s own leaders speak of devolution in more rousing cultural terms, of uniting a proud people under a shared sense of identity.
Which is why most of the speakers at the One Yorkshire devolution conference in Leeds on Friday gave the sense that although they recognise the logic of the government’s position - that Yorkshire is too big and has to be broken up for devolution to progress - their collective affinity as Yorkshiremen will always be stronger than anything that separates them in terms of geographical boundaries between North, South, East and West.
The sentiment was passionately echoed in the words of Matt Thomas, a member of the Yorkshire Party who lives in Pontefract and attended the event.
“I will never accept my little part of Yorkshire being forced to rebrand as Leeds City Region at the will of people like Jake Berry. We are nowhere near Leeds, we don’t identify with being part of Leeds. Identity means so much. They don’t get it, they never will.”
Whether it’s Yorkshire’s distinctive foods (Yorkshire tea and Yorkshire pudding being the most obvious), its rolling hills or its thriving cities, ‘brand Yorkshire’ is seen by its leaders as being an immense opportunity for the region to capitalise on, regardless of the whether the holy grail of One Yorkshire devolution is eventually achieved or not.
Jo Miller, chief executive of Doncaster MBC reflected: “I’ve never met anyone on my travels who says ‘I’m from the Northern Powerhouse’, but I meet people who say they’re from Yorkshire all the time. It’s gold dust in our divided country.”
The late MP Jo Cox was renowned for being a proud Yorkshirewoman. “I am Batley and Spen born and bred, and I could not be prouder of that,” she once commented. “I am proud that I was made in Yorkshire, and I am proud of the things we make in Yorkshire. Britain should be proud of that, too.”
John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at UCL, says that ‘identity of place’ is extremely important when it comes to selling the idea of One Yorkshire devolution to local people. “Belonging is the cornerstone of society,” he said. “If you have economic models that don’t give a sense of belonging, then you have problems.
“We need to think about the extent that people buy into the idea they belong to a place called Yorkshire. Listen to poets, not economists, when making the case for One Yorkshire.”
Reflecting his sentiments rather literally, one member of the devolution conference audience, Jackie Fisher, revealed that she had written a poem for One Yorkshire devolution, ‘Let the White Rose Bloom’.
Similarly, Dan Jarvis, the mayor for Sheffield City Region, started his speech with the heartwarming story of the one armed cyclist from Yorkshire, Walter Greaves, who in 1936 set the world record for distance ridden in a year - 45,383 miles - despite having only one arm and falling off numerous times – as an analogy for the “huge obstacles” Yorkshire is now facing with devolution.
The three years of political discussions that have taken place over One Yorkshire meant that regional leaders from across the political spectrum have managed to align under the same banner. In these divided times, this in itself quite an achievement, and several speakers at the conference reflected on this.
“In all my 20 years in politics, I’ve never seen such cross-party working. It has been tremendous – this issue overrides party political differences,” said Jonathan Owen, deputy leader of East Riding of Yorkshire Council (Con).
Although devolution in its current form is still new – the first deal was agreed in 2014 – the impact of metro mayors in championing their places and providing a point of focus already makes them feel part of the political furniture.
And already, the difference between those areas which have devolution and those that don’t is becoming stark.
Half of the £1.7bn Transforming Cities fund went to mayoral areas, and is already being spent in Greater Manchester on relocating trams and creating cycling roads.
Mr Berry points to Greater Manchester as being an example of devolution working at its best. “If you ask people in Manchester what does Andy Burnham do for this city, they would say he’s fantastic advocate for the city and taking Manchester from being a Northern city to being an international city,” he said.
Talks between ministers and the Yorkshire leaders continue. Hopefully, they will find a way of channelling their pride and passion for ‘God’s own county’ into a plan of action that will satisfy both sides.
Jessica Hill, senior reporter