Last year I analysed the rise of a core group of Conservative parliamentarians – the so-called ‘Yorkshire Tory Mafia’. Following the most recent Government reshuffle, this group seemed ideally placed to push forward the county’s regional agenda, in particular with regards to the ongoing devolution dispute and what form this will eventually take across the UK’s largest county.
Recent developments in the contest to elect the first Mayor of the Sheffield City Region have added another intriguing twist in what has been one of the most convoluted regional political sagas in recent times.
The emergence over the last couple of weeks of a number of Labour hopefuls – including current MP for Barnsley Dan Jarvis and former Minister Richard Caborn – who are hoping to secure the party’s mayoral nomination when it is announced in March has signalled a change in the debate, suggesting that the transfer of powers and money from central government could be a stepping stone to a wider Yorkshire devolution deal.
In the context of the broader political debate as to who holds hegemony across Yorkshire, this could be crucial into determining the effectiveness of the group of the Conservative parliamentarians who now sit at the top table in Government.
Calls for devolution of power from central government to the county, creating a combined authority of 5.3 million people in what could be potentially the most significant entity outside of London, have so far been slow to gain traction given the disparate political sensibilities across Yorkshire with both Labour and Conservative politicians guilty of not ceding ground over the PR battle.
In announcing his intention to stand, Jarvis has utilised the contest in order to highlight what he believes is a lack of appetite within Westminster on delivering the Government’s devolution agenda. Jarvis has been especially critical of the Government, who he claims are forcing through a watered-down Sheffield city region deal for purely naked political reasons, in order to prevent Labour-dominated South Yorkshire councils from polluting their electoral prospects in the rest of Yorkshire.
The Government has so far remained hesitant to back the One Yorkshire proposal, contradicting its own General Election Manifesto commitments. ‘One Yorkshire’, which have now received the backing of 18 of Yorkshire’s 20 local authorities, the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the TUC, has already shifted the dynamic of the campaign. Labour will therefore be hoping that in potentially securing the mayoralty with a heavy hitter at the ballot box, they can steel a march on the Conservatives as the real party of meaningful devolution.
These recent developments will mean that attitudes within Government will therefore have to change if the Conservatives want to be seen to reap the political benefits of finally delivering on their devolution agenda. While the Government previously dismissed the idea that the whole of Yorkshire could have a devolution settlement, insisting it would not support any proposal that jeopardised the Sheffield deal, it has now agreed in principle that a “two-stage” solution could work – with the Sheffield city region reaching an initial deal, and later joining with a wider Yorkshire agreement. This could potentially be crucial given that Sheffield City Council has been the most resistant to the One Yorkshire proposition, the mayoral vote therefore promises to be a key test of public opinion after Doncaster and Barnsley voters backed countywide devolution in a referendum in December.
The devolution reality across Yorkshire is that right now, the South Yorkshire deal is the only deal on the table. As it stands, whoever is elected Mayor of Sheffield in May will have virtually none of the promised powers of the original deal brokered by George Osborne in 2015, but the result could yet be utilised as a stepping stone towards a wider devolution agreement.
Given its position as a potential economic powerhouse to rival the South East, politicians across the region are keen to reap the political kudos of finally delivering on the promises made over a number of years. This will not only provide resilience against the potential challenges of Brexit, but also to put a system of governance in place that will allow the region to cooperate and compete with other parts of the country and other parts of the world.
By Matthew Sutton, Senior Account Manager