From Catalonia to the Aland Swedes in the north of Europe to Sardinia and Sicily in the south, there seem to be an ever increasing number of demands for independence, greater regional autonomy or simply more local power. Could it be that Yorkshire is now about to join that list? God’s own county may not become God’s own country, but with serious conversations being held about a ‘Yorkshire mayor’ it looks like the region could well be set for much greater control over its own economy, investment and spending.
At first glance it is – to use the colloquial term – a no-brainer.
Yorkshire’s Gross Domestic Product – roughly £120bn – is equal to that of the Ukraine and bigger than 11 EU countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Luxembourg. Leeds is the largest legal and financial centre outside London – its financial and insurance industry is reckoned to be worth £2.1bn a year. Sheffield has an economy equal to that of Ghana. On the sporting field Yorkshire gained more medals at the Rio Olympics than Canada.
Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland: its GDP is twice that of the whole of Wales. And yet it has the powers of neither.
Liverpool, Manchester and Teesside have directly elected mayors, exercising executive powers. And directly elected mayors are more responsible to the local electorate: they’re in power for four years – they can take the tough decisions that need to be taken. What’s more a local mayor is more recognisable – more of a figurehead, both engaging more people in politics and attracting inward investment. A ‘heavyweight’ like Ed Balls has to be more attractive to foreign companies than, say, the head of the regeneration department at the local council.
Yep, it’s a no-brainer. Roll on the first elections for Yorkshire mayor in 2018.
Or maybe not…
Because the more I think about it, the more cautious about the idea I become. Hang on, I’m just going to jump in the car…
I drove from Leeds to London to Birmingham to Liverpool to Manchester and back to Leeds. A round trip of not quite 500 miles. But on that journey I drove through four areas with directly elected mayors – five if Yorkshire follows suit. That’s five directly elected mayors with their attendant salaries, staff and bureaucracies. Many would argue that what this country needs is less government, not more government.
It’s like a business adding layer upon layer of ‘spending and oversight’ committees: ultimately, they’re all costs which have to be borne by the people that produce the wealth.
And I’m not sure that a politician is the answer. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham – both Labour party stalwarts – have washed up in Manchester and Liverpool respectively. Aye, there’s always Mayor of Yorkshire, love. I may have failed at Westminster but t’party has found me a cushy number in Leeds…
If we are to have a Yorkshire mayor, give me someone with business experience: someone like Gary Verity – or better yet, Barry Dodd, someone with experience of business, spending, the LEPs and dealing with politicians.
Mayor of Yorkshire would be a tough gig. Getting Leeds to agree with York is a challenge, before we try and get Sheffield to agree with anyone in West Yorkshire. And then there’s geography. As my former TAB York members on the coast would tell me, Scarborough to Skipton is a three day camel trek.
Money does need spending in Yorkshire, but I have my doubts as to whether a mayor is automatically the right answer. The problem is that the Government seems addicted to expensive gestures, irrespective of their real benefits.
…Which brings me neatly on to HS2. What’s the latest bill? Somewhere north of £50bn – it’s set to be the most expensive railway in the world. I suspect it will cost Elon Musk less money to colonise Mars. Let’s spend a fraction of that money and improve the rail link between Leeds and Manchester and Liverpool. An hour stuck in a siding outside Huddersfield would concentrate the new Mayor’s thoughts. At least they’ve stopped calling the trains ‘sprinters…’