If you google ‘combined authority logo’ you will note that most have chosen to represent themselves with a series of coloured dots or slivers that come together in a wheel or a line.
LGC readers will know the pain that each of the coloured dots – the councils – have gone through to come together with longstanding rivals to create the broader kaleidoscope in the interests of improving jobs, infrastructure and skills.
However, the wider population may be left cold by these curiously similar symbols, which could alternatively have represented a management consultancy or legal partnership. None is as emotive as Warwickshire’s bear and ragged staff, Liverpool’s liver bird or the white rose of Yorkshire.
In recent years, councils have successfully reinvented themselves as crusaders for growth, pragmatically working with the government in the interests of their local population. They have largely transformed from being inward facing bodies to ‘leaders of place’, championing business. As they have striven to bring money into their area, it has seemed sensible to avoid becoming bogged down by potentially controversial issues of local identity.
In recent years, councils have successfully reinvented themselves as crusaders for growth
‘Travel to work areas’ and government requirements for scale have formed the basis of some proposed combined authority boundaries, not rivers or accents. While Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Liverpool City Region may have been blessed with cohesive identities, at one stage both historic Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and Norfolk and Suffolk were coming together.
Tuesday, Yorkshire Day, was an opportune occasion for the most dramatic challenge so far to this ‘head, not heart’ model of devolution. It emerged that 17 of the county’s 20 councils were considering supporting a Yorkshire-wide deal – one that would cut across travel-to-work areas to apply to the whole white rose county. It would also put councils at loggerheads with Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry who has ruled out such a deal.
Yorkshire’s ‘coalition of the willing’ needs to demonstrate how such a large county could operate as a cohesive political unit, taking decisions benefiting more than one economic area, with progress not being impeded by a single naysayer.
However, a Yorkshire-wide body has the potential to move devolution to a different level: regional democracy centred upon a widely understood non-city area with a passionately upheld identity. It could become England’s Bavaria, posing a challenge to the centralist mind set. This is not to say Sheffield and Leeds lack identity, or would be anything other than cohesive city regions. However, they would not break the mould, or show that devolution can be for anything other than major cities.
And – regardless of the struggle in Yorkshire – let’s move beyond dots and slivers as symbols of local identities. Prospective investors and the local population alike will be unimpressed if every area declares itself ‘open for business’ and adopts the same identity as its neighbour.