Why devolution could split Yorkshire in half

The Sheffield City Region deal has been rejected by many voters, businesses and politicians.

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If the mandarins of Westminster assumed that the devolution deals they handed down would be accepted gratefully across the North, they have been surprised. Strong regional identities have been stirred by the EU referendum and exacerbated by the prospect of being squeezed into the same jurisdiction as a traditional enemy 20 minutes down the motorway.

A frequent refrain of Northerners living outside the M62 corridor is that so far, all the fanfare around the Powerhouse has focused too much on the big cities west of the Pennines. So when South Yorkshire was given the chance to replicate the successes of the Manchester and Liverpool devolution deals by electing a mayor for Sheffield City Region in May, this should have been a chance to capitalise on the new powers and cash incentives that Whitehall has offered to the region’s four constituent local authorities: Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. But early talks that included Chesterfield and Bassetlaw ended in acrimony, with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire county councils accusing Sheffield of predatory behaviour and a land-grab against their respective regions.

To make matters worse, at the end of last year, Barnsley and Doncaster held a referendum or “community poll” on devolution, in which 85 per cent of voters rejected the Sheffield City Region model – offered after two years of painstaking work and negotiation – in favour of a proposed “One Yorkshire” settlement that had never even been on the table as far as the government was concerned. All but two of the 20 local authorities in Yorkshire now support all-Yorkshire devolution, leaving Sheffield City Region as an unwanted gift for which the recipients are making no attempt to pretend they’re grateful.

“There’s a Brexit-esque quality to people worrying about where their place starts and stops” says Chris Read, Labour mayor of Rotherham – the only council, along with Sheffield, that is still fully behind the City Region deal. “My view is that this is all a bit of a distraction from what our shared priority ought to be, which is: how do we draw in investment, how do we create jobs? But I appreciate functional economic geography doesn’t excite people in quite the way that Yorkshire loyalties might do.”

Fellow Labour mayor Ros Jones, of neighbouring Doncaster, sees things differently: “Yorkshire has the size, assets and brand to make devolution a real success. People clearly feel an association with Yorkshire which they don’t feel about the Sheffield City Region, and that sense of pride and identity is important if we want to gain public support for a new layer of regional government.”

This sentiment is echoed by Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley. Jarvis is in a rare position for a politician in that, as both the leading advocate of all-Yorkshire devolution and a contender to be Labour’s candidate for mayor of Sheffield in May, he’s trying to get elected to an office he doesn’t believe should exist in the long term. But for Jarvis, who campaigned to remain in the EU as the MP for a constituency that ultimately voted almost 70 per cent to leave, the referendum was an abrupt lesson in listening to the people of Yorkshire. That result, he says, “demonstrated to the political establishment that millions of people felt disenfranchised. They felt that the places where they lived had not received the benefits that globalisation had brought to other parts of the country. And the EU referendum provided them the opportunity to have their say in kicking back against a system they didn’t think had served them particularly well.”

For central government to once more impose on his constituents an identity they don’t recognise would, says Jarvis, be a big mistake. “People instinctively feel part of Yorkshire. It’s a recognisable brand. People go to football matches and they’ll shout ‘Yorkshire! Yorkshire!’ They don’t have that same sense of identity to the Sheffield City Region.”

In areas such as Barnsley and Doncaster, it doesn’t help that the new City Region’s name implies that those towns will become an appendage of Sheffield. For Chris Read, this is a superficial concern. “Sheffield City Region is just a name that we give to it,” he says. “We’re all equal parts of it... We could call it South Yorkshire City Region or we could call it Derbyshire and South Yorkshire or whatever, the name doesn’t matter to me. But [opponents of the Sheffield deal] were concerned about that.”

Read says other devolution deals would do well to take this into account. “I expect all towns outside cities have a concern that’s part of their local identity. People in Rotherham are proud of being from Rotherham. They wouldn’t describe themselves as being from Sheffield. But the task has always been, for us local leaders, to demonstrate the practical, tangible benefits of devolution.” Those not inconsiderable benefits include around £1bn of extra government investment over 30 years following the mayoral election in May.

The dispute is not simply one of local identity. Supporters of the One Yorkshire proposals include leading business groups such as the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors, as well as the TUC. Businesses are enthusiastic about the county’s considerable size and potential economic clout; Yorkshire’s economy is larger than that of 11 EU states. Its population of over five million puts it on a par with Scotland. It is twice the size of Northern Ireland with almost three times as many people. There are twice as many people in Yorkshire as there are in Wales. But these places, unlike Yorkshire, already enjoy the benefits of considerable devolved powers at the assemblies in Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay.

Party politics, too, could hamper progress. It’s possible that an all-Yorkshire devolution deal would split the region into a Tory north and a Labour south, with neither party able to guarantee dominance. Rotherham’s Chris Read concedes that while the Sheffield City Region would, like Manchester and Liverpool, be all but guaranteed to be run as a Labour fiefdom for the foreseeable future, his “political sense of it is that it would be more likely to be a Tory mayor [for all of Yorkshire] more often than a Labour one.”

So far, the government has signalled its willingness to negotiate on the issue of Yorkshire devolution, provided South Yorkshire’s Sheffield City Region deal is properly implemented first. If Dan Jarvis wins the Labour nomination next month, he is all but guaranteed to be elected mayor of Sheffield City Region. But for him, and for the 18 Yorkshire councils calling for regional autonomy, the City Region deal will be just the beginning.