Devolution in the UK has long being defined as an unfinished business, not least due to uncertainties concerning England’s role and place within the process. Whilst some progress has been made since the election of a coalition government in 2010, devolution in England remains piecemeal and incomplete.
From 2014, a handful of ‘devolution deals’ have been agreed between the government and local authorities, privileging a back stage, contractual approach.
To date, the devo deals agenda can be described as a ‘ragbag’. Some deals have been successful (Greater Manchester); some fell apart (North East); and others have proved problematic (Sheffield City Region).
It’s turning into a ‘messy business’: devolution draws on a top-down approach but it lacks a clear framework; its roadmap is uncertain and it is developing in fits and starts; it does not cover all areas and each deal involves different powers, funding and responsibilities; it aims to enhance economic development and democracy but it creates new divides between deal haves and have-nots, whilst the public remains largely unaware of what’s happening.
So far, the process has resembled a top-down form of regionalisation around functional economic geographies, within which devolution is conceived as a central-local partnership to foster growth, with little space for any political and popular dimension. However, the story of devolution deals in Yorkshire suggests that, beyond economic growth, devolution could (and perhaps should) be also about people, place, community and belonging.
Squeezing out local agency
In 2015, local authorities across the region followed central government’s script and submitted two devo deal proposal drawing on existing city regions and combined authorities. Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (SCRCA) led the way and signed the first devo deal after Greater Manchester in October.
West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) proposal, however, never received support from central government. This difference can be explained by the way in which the deals were presented. The former was the result of direct, early negotiations with the Treasury, with little room for local agency – accepting most of the conditions stamped on the deal by the government. The latter included 27 ‘asks’ and sought to challenge to some extent Whitehall’s vision. Party politics played a part too.
As of 2016, SCRCA was the only area preparing to elect a metro mayor in May 2017 and get a devo deal, whilst the rest of the region was left in a limbo. So devolution in Yorkshire was ‘done’ and the message underpinning it was clear. The local authorities that were able to ‘get their act together’ and stick to the script would get a deal. The others would have to wait and see.
However, this process was soon ‘undone’. The first stumbling point was Derbyshire County Council call for a judicial review of Chesterfield’s decision to become a statutory member of SCRCA along with Bassetlaw. The High Court found the process was flawed and had to be re-run. Eventually, Chesterfield and Bassetlaw pulled out, remaining in the deal just as non-statutory partners. This meant that the initial membership of the CA changed, with implications for the powers, functions and funding attached to the agreement. It also led to delays in the election of the SCRCA metro-mayor, which are now to be held in May 2018.
This standstill allowed other constituent members to voice their concerns about the SCRCA deal. Doncaster and Barnsley entered discussions with other councils in Yorkshire over a ‘One Yorkshire’ proposal. They also held a ‘community poll’ to ask the local population whether they preferred the government-backed SCRCA deal or a Yorkshire-wide option, underlining their changed devolution allegiances.
Local enthusiasm for One Yorkshire
The undoing of the initial devo deal plans brought in new opportunities for ‘redoing devolution’. 18 out 20 local authorities across Yorkshire have joined forces and developed a Yorkshire-wide devo deal proposal.
This aims to set up a single mayoral combined authority for Yorkshire, “based on the widest possible geography, conditional on Government enabling all 20 Yorkshire Councils to join – if they so choose – by May 2020”. Interestingly, for the first time, the Secretary of State for Local Government Sajid Javid has not rejected the idea, claiming that the government would not stand in the way if there were evidence of support for a Yorkshire deal. Currently, Sheffield and Rotherham are not backing the proposal, as they continue to prioritise SCRCA deal.
However, the imminent metro mayors election could bring about changes in this respect. Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis has been selected as Labour’s candidate, and is likely to be the new SCRCA mayor. But Jarvis is on the One Yorkshire camp, and he is standing on a platform which aims to see SCRCA joining a Yorkshire deal by 2020.
The Labour Party has also agreed that Jarvis could continue to stand as an MP even if he was elected as metro-mayor. This would allow him to use his position in parliament to push for a Yorkshire-wide agreement.
From (city-)regionalisation to regionalism?
The path of devolution in Yorkshire is far from settled and remains surrounded by uncertainties. There are, nonetheless, some interesting points to note.
The fact that the government has not rejected a Yorkshire-wide plan but is willing to enter discussions with local authorities suggests that, despite the dominant top-down approach that has prevailed so far, something might be changing. In particular, the lack of a clear framework from the centre and the pressures generated by the current climate of austerity and the uncertainties of Brexit on local leaders have opened new spaces for strategic agency from the bottom up. ‘Cracks’ in the system of devolution have repeatedly emerged in the region, and the new SCRCA metro mayor could act as a ‘wedge’ to extend the purpose and ambitions of devolution in Yorkshire.
If accepted, a Yorkshire-wide deal would usher in a new system of devolved governance, challenging the current agenda. This would be based on a much wider (regional) scale than any of its counterparts and would, in turn, entail more powers, funding and policy capacity, stronger political leadership for the mayor, and much greater leverage both at the centre and across the region.
In essence, to update what I discussed in a Political Quarterly journal article, this could see a shift from the current top-down process of regionalisation around the city-region/combined authority scale, to a more organic form of regionalism with a greater degree of bottom-up agency.
The SCRCA deal has been undermined by its artificial geography, party political rivalries, the lack of an institutional architecture that maps onto local identities, and the absence of popular engagement.
The Yorkshire-wide deal proposal still sees economic development as a key goal. But it also draws on regional identity and its potential to promote the economy (e.g. exploiting the ‘Yorkshire brand’) and to build popular support across the region (mobilising and politicising ‘Yorkshireness’).
As such, local leaders supporting a Yorkshire-wide deal seem to have borrowed and reframed a narrative of regionalism that had so far been endorsed only by regionalist parties – recognising that people, place, community and democracy can play an important role in strengthening their case for devolution.
Thus, a new form of regionalism could emerge from the hashes of top-down regionalisation in Yorkshire. What remains to be seen is whether the government will be willing to open the way to this model of devolution.