The devolution revolution

All politics, it is said, is local.

For England, this meant years of unregulated and arbitrary growth; sometimes by war, sometimes by economics, sometimes by local geography. By the end of the 19th Century local government in England was a mixture of towns and cities, county and city boroughs, rural areas and counties, Ridings, Wapentakes, Shires and Hundreds that had existed since A Very Long Time Ago.

The advent of 20th Century saw sweeping changes. The County of London took over one-fifth of Middlesex, and then most of the remainder in the 1960s. Industrial towns and cities grew ever larger, expanding their boundaries to include smaller parishes and villages.

Revolution!

Wholescale changes in England took place when major restructuring took place in 1974. The historic counties were swept away with new, more economically-based entities. The historic county of Yorkshire and its three Ridings were chopped up and redistributed. Most of the West Riding became West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire Metropolitan Counties. Parts of the East Riding merged with the northern Lincolnshire towns across the Humber to form Humberside. Saddleworth went to Greater Manchester, formed out of parts of Lancashire and Cheshire. Middlesbrough became part of a new County Cleveland.

There was, throughout the land, a general weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth at some of the changes – but, actually, some of them were very sensible indeed. Metropolitan County Councils such as West Yorkshire delivered co-ordinated functions such as fire and transport, to the benefit of everyone. Tax revenues from West Yorkshire’s five Metropolitan District Councils could be pooled to great a bigger economic impact.

This simplified system lasted 12 years. Metropolitan Councils were abolished in 1986, leading to the odd situation where the county of West Yorkshire exists but it has no governing Council formed by direct election. Common functions were mostly maintained (such as transport) but tax-raising and other functions were devolved back to the five individual district councils. Slowly, the clean lines drawn in the early 1970 were muddied.

It’s the economy (and education), stupid

In 2000, Local Enterprise Partnerships were created to replace the previous Regional Development Agencies. They have no statutory role and can span more than one Council area, the idea being that they can use Government funding to promote and encourage economic growth, in areas which aren’t limited to single authorities. This can also include apprenticeships and further education as well as the more usual business activity.

But the patchwork nature of England’s local government means LEP areas can sometimes be confusing. In the East Midlands, D2N2 covers City of Derby, Derbyshire, City of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire (the two cities councils being enclaves of their respective counties). Leeds City Region, however, covers the territory of West Yorkshire plus the City of York, plus the districts of Craven, Harrogate and Selby in North Yorkshire, plus Barnsley in South Yorkshire (which is also a member of the Sheffield City Region LEP). York is also a member of York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP.

Where it gets really complicated is that Councils can now come together to form Combined Authorities – but they can only legally be a member of one. Thus Barnsley is a member of Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (‘hard’ boundary) and Leeds City Region LEP (‘soft’ boundary). The northern Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire districts are also “non-constituent partner members” of SCRCA.

Clarkson, Hammond and May

And where it gets really, REALLY confusing is that there are several, competing Yorkshire-related City Region bids. There’s one for West Yorkshire, one for West Yorkshire plus York, one for West Yorkshire plus the Leeds City Region areas (minus Barnsley), one for the whole of modern (1974 boundaries) Yorkshire minus SCRCA. And the West Yorkshire leaders, while leading on their preferred ‘Leeds City Region’ bid, can only speak for their local authorities – not the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, even though it’s the same six Leaders. Which I have to explain to the occasional confused reporter. It’s not always much clearer anywhere else in the country either.

In my opinion – which is as valid as anyone else’s – the Yorkshire problem is because we continue to hark back to the pre-1974 days. I will always be a Yorkshireman, and a proud one (not that there’s any other kind) and I always observe Yorkshire Day, but this is about the only time I wish we were more like Manchester.

Note that I wrote ‘Manchester’, not Greater Manchester. That county didn’t exist before 1974, it’s had to build up its own profile, engender goodwill and make people forget that it was formerly parts of south-east Lancashire and north-east Cheshire. Which it has broadly done, although localism still plays its part. Manchester is a synonym for Greater Manchester in the same way that London is for Greater London.

Greater Manchester has built up a profile and goodwill from nothing by building a Manchester-centric approach. West Yorkshire is burdened by both history and hyper-local affiliations, diluting the offer.

I also think that the ‘mix ‘n’ match approach’ is a great way for central government to keep local government down. By having district and county councils, combined authorities, LEPs, city regions and elected Mayors it means local decision making is spread between different bodies so the ‘opposition’ is divided, even if those bodies overlap or are coterminous.

Moral

The point of this really is to remind those of you who approach public sector organisations to think about what our functions are and the areas we cover. If you try and get money out of me for an event in Leeds I’ll have to give the same amount to the other four districts which is why we tend to do county-wide or nothing. If you want to know how our devolution negotiations are going – they’re not, we aren’t involved in them.

And always keep in mind that it’s always changing. As I write, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 became law a few days ago. Among other things it would allow York to become a full member of WYCA even though there is no common (contiguous) boundary. It might do that, it might not. If North Yorkshire hands over transport powers we might get a Leeds City Region Combined Authority instead. We might get a West Yorkshire Mayor. If we don’t, WYCA still has a good Growth Deal settlement. Oh, yes… Growth Deals… and devolved health spending… and lots of other things I dare not look at; like pan-regional statutory bodies such as Rail North and Transport for the North.

Like I said in Influence: confused much?

Further reading

  1. History of Local Government in England
  2. Google Map of Local Enterprise Partnerships

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