Devolution must leave no one behind

Towns such as Rotherham are crucial to the success of the Northern Powerhouse, writes the leader of Rotherham council.

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Any ambitions that the Northern Powerhouse agenda can profess to have will hinge as much on the success of its towns as its major cities. While the likes of Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle might steal the headlines, it’s places like Rotherham – the borough that I represent – that make up home for many of our Northern communities, and that can’t afford to get left behind.  

An over-centralised state has undermined progress for the United Kingdom’s economy for too long. Focusing talent and resources in the capital continues to hamper the prospect of what might otherwise be straightforward decisions, made by the local people equipped with the local knowledge needed to make them effectively. Why would Whitehall know better?  

The population of Rotherham Borough is 263,400 and is growing steadily, having increased by 2.2 per cent since 2011. Rotherham has a rich industrial heritage and we have worked alongside partners across the sub-region and the region to rebuild our economy to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

For more than a year now, we have been the fastest growing economy in the region for GVA growth, according to Irwin Mitchell and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Indeed, the company’s latest quarterly report ranked Rotherham as the fastest growing economy on this measure anywhere in the North. The progress we have made is in no small part owed to the remarkable partnership between the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) and Waverley Borough Council, which brings together Sheffield University, Sheffield City Council and private investors in Rotherham to reimagine the future of manufacturing in the area. We were also delighted that McLaren Automotive has built its first manufacturing site outside its Woking base in the borough, thus creating some 200 highly skilled job opportunities. And I will never grow tired of saying that the next generation of Rotherham’s young people is going to build supercars for a living.

I saw recently that my old primary school had taken pupils on a trip to the AMP, and it seemed a world away from the announcement of pit closures when I was a child. For my generation, growing up in South Yorkshire, the outlook felt pretty bleak. If you could move away, you usually did. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s true of the situation today. But that is reason for cautious optimism, rather than complacency. The job is not totally done yet.

Last year, 44 per cent of Year 10 students in Rotherham told one of our surveys that they wanted to progress to either college or university. Accordingly, we have done a lot of work to secure the establishment of the University Centre in Rotherham – a brand new campus dedicated to our degrees and professional training qualifications, accredited by Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Hull.

Only 25 per cent of working-age people in Rotherham are qualified to NVQ4 level (degree or diploma) compared with 38 per cent nationally. If Rotherham matched the national average, 10 per cent more of our population would have higher level qualifications. Average weekly earnings in Rotherham are £398, 85 per cent of the national average, and local women earn only 61 per cent of male workers’ salaries. Unemployment in Rotherham has more than halved from 11.3 per cent in 2011/12 to 5.2 per cent in 2017/18, but is still above the national average of 4.4 per cent, showing that there is still work to be done.

The MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy, and others have recently shown how the growing age divide between our towns and cities increasingly means that we live in different worlds, leading parallel lives, and growing further apart rather than closer together. You only have to catch the train between Rotherham and Sheffield or Leeds to be able to see it. Still, we were delighted to bring the UK’s first tram train into Rotherham, connecting us directly onto Sheffield’s super tram network. The headlines focused on how the scheme came in three years late and at the apparently huge cost of £80 million – but missed the fact that ultimately it is only a pilot, and the government will decide in two years whether we get to keep it.

High Speed 2 is potentially calamitous for Rotherham’s local rail services, stripping capacity from the local network, so I cautiously welcome the Northern Powerhouse Rail commitment which gives us the possibility of remodelled rail connectivity in the future. But we are far from the kind of long-term funding and planning certainty that we need.

And on housing, where we are committing tens of millions of pounds of council investment to secure the homes that our families will need in the future, a national model too focussed on overheating housing markets in the South will never give the full benefits to communities like ours. It will be important to see how the re-structured Homes England addresses a local and regional approach. At first glance it appears to be moving more towards a one-size-fits-all, national model. The 80-20 funding split in favour of “more affluent and viable areas” may also need to be looked at – with very few places in Yorkshire qualifying for the 80 per cent funding, and leaving towns like Rotherham competing for the remaining 20 per cent.

It is really pleasing to see the announcement of new government funding for town centres and high streets, but pitting towns against each other in a competition is hardly very progressive. Rotherham has the most out of centre competition in the whole country which won’t be a surprise to those familiar with Medowhall, Parkgate, Cortonwood and Crystal Peaks. So a diversification of our town centre has been an aim for many years – that said, getting investment into the likes of housing, leisure, offices and the public realm is a real challenge.

Andy Burnham, the metro mayor for Greater Manchester, has written about the way that Treasury modelling drives investment into London, creating nominally greater return precisely because there has already been more investment in the first place. Professor Diana Coyle’s paper last year spells out the problem in great detail. IPPR North research last year suggested that since the launch of the Northern Powerhouse, transport spending per head has risen twice as much in London as it has in the North. If we are serious about rebalancing the economy, then we have to see that as a matter of correcting market failure – that means national policy has to change, but also that we need to counterbalance it with stronger Northern institutions. Too much of the internal politics of City Regions is either arguing with or rubber-stamping decisions made by computer modelling. That’s part of what leaves people cold. What is “local” matters. Geography that’s too big simply recreates the same pressures that we face nationally, but on a different footprint.

All of which brings me shuddering to the topic of devolution. And as one of only two council leaders in the region not to be fully signed up to the One Yorkshire project, I tread carefully. I was late to deciding that undertaking devolution on the Metro Mayor model was a good idea and our South Yorkshire experience since 2015 has been exhausting. Frankly, in a time of austerity, our inability to take what would have amounted by now to more than £100 million of additional investment does not say much for us. But it is obviously right, to my mind, that local authorities must be able to choose their partners in order to decide how best to make devolution work for them. It makes no sense to me at all that the government is saying no to One Yorkshire at the same time as its LEP review threatens the role of the five non-Yorkshire district councils in the Sheffield City Region. They are certainly part of the Sheffield travel to work area. At the same time, as that uncertainty continues, we race towards the Brexit that 69 per cent of my residents voted for, with worryingly little clarity on the replacement for the £2.4bn a year of EU regional funding that currently flows into areas of the UK economy where need is most acute.

The same Irwin Mitchell report that I’ve already mentioned, which heralded Rotherham’s economic growth, also predicts that it will halve with Brexit. There is too much uncertainty, too many shifting sands, to build the fledgling institutions that we need if we are to come good on that commitment to rebalance the economy. And if we are to go further – to build stronger, more cohesive communities supported by more resilient local economies – then we mustn’t forget about places like Rotherham.