I was recently struck by the words of Archbishop John Sentamyu: “Today, our elected leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to repay the trust vested in them by the people and to forge an exciting new future for this great county.” He went on to say: “I pray that we will live this out recognising that we have more in common spiritually, culturally, socially, economically, and politically than which divides us …Together we are Yorkshire.”
All of us have a responsibility to work co-operatively together to best serve the interests of our region. In that spirit, I propose what I hope is a constructive way forward for a future devolved settlement for Yorkshire and the Humber. But before I do, let me say a word about how we got to where we are. Last year, as other parts of the country moved ahead with their devolution deals, we reached an impasse in Yorkshire. In response, the councils of Barnsley and Doncaster held a community poll on devolution. Some 85% voted in favour of a wider Yorkshire deal, and in doing so endorsed the approach that their council leaders had taken. They showed those of us who proudly represent the people of Yorkshire and the Humber the scale of their ambition for devolution. For those of us who represent Barnsley and Doncaster, our marching orders are clear: go back to the Government and get the deal the people want.
The people of Barnsley and Doncaster also overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, in part because they felt powerless and in part because they felt tired – tired of being left behind and powerless to do anything about it. It is not hard to see why. Not only do the people of Yorkshire receive an income that is 80% of the national average, but they also receive £300 per head less in terms of public spending, which results in education and health outcomes lagging well behind those of more prosperous regions.
I do not begrudge any other part of the country its affluence, but I do understand why people in our region are disillusioned and angry. That desire for Brexit, and the need for devolution, are symptoms of the same malaise. I believe that if we are to make Britain healthy again and heal its divisions, we need a new economic and political settlement that involves genuine devolution of political and economic power that will spread prosperity and opportunity to towns and counties of all regions.
In short, if we are serious about closing the north-south divide, piecemeal changes simply are not good enough. The solution must be as ambitious as the challenge is profound. That is why I believe that a wider Yorkshire deal is the way forward. By working together across the whole of our county and, like in the West Midlands, not being confined to just one city, we would have the collective clout and the brand reputation to co-operate and compete not only with other parts of the UK, but with other parts of the world.
Bill Adams, regional secretary of the Yorkshire TUC, said that we can “combine the advanced manufacturing of South Yorkshire with the energy hub and ports of Humberside, the tourism and agriculture of the North with the financial and manufacturing centres of West Yorkshire.”
Both nationally and internationally, a single Mayor would provide the single voice required to unlock the much-needed new investment. That is critically required in areas such as our transport system.
The inequality in transport spending between north and south has been well documented, but it is worth repeating just how bad the situation has become. London is set to receive 10 times more transport investment than Yorkshire. Because of that, Yorkshire’s transport system is out of date, unreliable and expensive. The separation of transport executives, each with its own precept and fares structure, makes short journeys, such as the 20-minute trip from York to Doncaster, prohibitively expensive. £20 for an anytime day return is too expensive for working people, and far too expensive to promote the growth that our region needs. A wider Yorkshire combined authority directing investment decisions and using its purchasing power to negotiate with transport providers would address that lack of integration, improve bus and rail services, promote growth and leverage further investment.
Devolution is about more than just transport infrastructure. It is about accessing funding for skills and training, building affordable homes, and preserving our unique culture, countryside and heritage by working together, harnessing our talents, combining our energies and maximising our influence, all of which is in reach.
The people of Barnsley and Doncaster identify with being part of Yorkshire, as do people across our region. The sense of place, community and belonging that comes from identifying with Yorkshire is, in many ways, our greatest asset. As such, we need to make use of it, but I accept that all that is easier said than done, because first we need a consensus between the Government and local authorities in our region. For that to happen, we need a new plan that is carefully considered and painstakingly developed and comes from listening to and understanding all the different views. That will take more time, so first we need an interim solution not only to preserve the goal of a wider Yorkshire deal, but to allow the Sheffield city region to begin to see the benefits of devolution and give everyone concerned the time and space needed to work on a deal.
With the right political will, I believe that holding a wider Yorkshire mayoral election in 2020 is entirely reasonable and achievable, but as things stand we are on course to elect a Mayor of the Sheffield city region in May. The newly elected Mayor would have so few powers that spending up to £2 million on this election would undermine not just his or her position, but the credibility of the whole devolution project. People in Barnsley and Doncaster would rightly feel further disenfranchised and ignored. Indeed, if we are prepared to ignore an 85% majority, what does that say about the state of our democracy? Now that the people of Barnsley and Doncaster have made their decision – all we want is the very best for Yorkshire and the Humber – we need to put that decision into practice.
Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.