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Devolution: Yorkshire

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

It is a particular pleasure to open this debate on Yorkshire devolution with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you have a distinguished record as a former Minister for Yorkshire, and at a time when Yorkshire needed a strong Minister, bringing together the world of politics, business and local authorities. I suggest that we are at a similar moment in our history. We need a strong elected voice to champion the whole of Yorkshire as our economy and our businesses face the challenges of Brexit.

All Yorkshiremen and women pride themselves on calling a spade a spade, and sometimes in our political lives we can fall victims to that. I retired from this House in 2010 and never expected to return. I quickly realised the trueness of the statement that there is nothing more ex than an ex-MP.

I am afraid so, Minister, as one day you might find out.

I returned to my former constituency to knock on doors in Heslington in support of a former council colleague. I wondered whether the resident at the first door I knocked on might recognise me. He opened the door, gave me one look and said, “The return of the living dead.” I want to be as frank as that former constituent in my comments to the House this evening, but I also want to suggest a way forward and possible compromises and conciliation. I will also speak about the Sheffield city region deal, much diminished though it now is.

Let me start by examining a proposal that has been signed by 17 Labour and Conservative councils—when last I checked, not one had withdrawn its name. They are proposing a single mayor and a single combined authority for the areas they represent, which is perfectly in line with the current law, as the Minister has agreed in a parliamentary answer. I want to consider not what might happen in future Parliaments, but what we can achieve in this Parliament, because, representing God’s own county, we all have a responsibility to do that.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that we have a responsibility to consider all the options? He mentioned 17 local authority leaders. The nine across north Yorkshire, who did sign up to the One Yorkshire deal in principle, are keen to explore the option of Greater Yorkshire, which is a deal on the table that we could progress today. Does he not think that we should be exploring that option?

Interestingly, none of those nine local authorities has yet withdrawn its name from the 17 that signed up to explore the Yorkshire deal. Some have admitted to me that they have benefited from re-education at last week’s Conservative party conference and now better understand the Government’s position, but Councillor Carl Les, who is a very good friend of mine from my days in north Yorkshire, said today that he still favours the widest possible deal. He doubted whether he could persuade the Minister, but I am more confident that we can do so.

It is interesting to look at the geography, because it includes the north of the Humber but not the south, and I recognise that there would need to be strong links between the north and the south however this plays out. The proposed combined authority would control things such as transport. On the basis of deals elsewhere, it might have £150 million to spend that is currently spent by Whitehall. It would look after skills, and there are some imaginative proposals, including that the regional schools commissioner should report to the mayor because we need to improve the performance of Yorkshire’s academies. The mayor would also oversee the team that promotes international trade in Yorkshire.

There are lots of exciting ideas, but it is Yorkshire’s identity that matters to me. Whether at Keighley Cougars, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday or Leeds United, people do not chant, “Sheffield city region!” or “South Yorkshire!”; they chant, “Yorkshire!” [Interruption.] Anytime that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) wants to intervene, I will obviously take that intervention.

I thought so.

One newspaper that comes out of this whole saga with credit is The Yorkshire Post, and I want to read just two sentences from its editorial this morning:

“This debate is a litmus test which will define the future relationship between Ministers and Yorkshire. While the city-region model is working elsewhere, a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal has the potential to be truly transformative and Ministers will not be thanked if they’re unable to recognise the once-in-a-generation opportunity that exists at long last.”

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case for the Greater Yorkshire deal. Devolution is all about local people making choices about their future and controlling their destiny. Seventeen authorities have come together to say that they want this deal, so the Minister should meet them and the MPs involved to get the deal under way. We cannot lag behind.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. All that the 17 councils are asking for is talks, which the Minister has not yet agreed to. This House quite rightly prides itself on the fact that we have had devolution through consent from both parties in more difficult places than Yorkshire, such as Northern Ireland, and we are now telling the Spanish Government that they must have talks with Catalonia. If they can do that, why cannot the Government have talks with 17 Yorkshire council leaders?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, because we started with a proposal for a West Yorkshire mayor and then for a lesser Yorkshire mayor, and we now have one for a Greater Yorkshire mayor. This should be less about the political colour of the mayor and more about councillors and other politicians working together to make swift decisions so that the people of Yorkshire, and particularly Batley and Spen, can make the most of this opportunity to regenerate our glorious, wonderful Yorkshire.

I could not have put it better. This is not just about the councils, because business also backs the proposal. I saw Jonathan Oxley, the regional chairman of the Institute of Directors, on television this morning, and Bill Adams of the TUC is among the opinion formers in Yorkshire who are very much behind the proposal.

I share many things with the Minister, one of which is that neither of us wakes up on election morning knowing that we will win—we fight marginal seats. Some of my hon. Friends have argued that the Labour party should not propose something that we would not definitely win. Equally, I am sure that some civil servants in Westminster have that traditional metropolitan fear of too strong a body in Yorkshire, which perhaps dates back in folk memory to when York was the capital of Viking England. We need a strong political voice in Yorkshire to argue for things such as better transport. Transport spending in Yorkshire is only £1 per head compared with £10 per head in London. We in Yorkshire are also 20% more likely to die young than those in the south-east, so we need a strong political voice to change things in our society.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. To bring him back to the sporting analogy, we had the grand final at the weekend—sadly, Keighley Cougars were not there, but Leeds and Castleford were—and it was played in Manchester. Is that not the point? While Manchester carries on with devolution and is moving forward, Yorkshire is not. Forget the politics, we have to move forward with devolution now.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I would say that Keighley Cougars will rise again. We are missing out in Yorkshire. Take the Commonwealth games. They are possibly going to Birmingham; Yorkshire was not even in the frame, and that is because we do not have a strong, powerful voice arguing that things such as the Commonwealth games should come to us. I would want a competitive election, which a devolution deal based on the whole of Yorkshire would bring.

I was about to move on to to the Sheffield city region deal, so this is the moment for me to give way.

Perhaps to encourage my hon. Friend to do so, let me say that I am afraid that the Sheffield city region deal is much diminished. Obviously, Barnsley and Doncaster signed up, and there was the hope that various authorities in Derbyshire would be involved. Sadly, that has now changed. Although the deal is about the same in terms of money—slightly more than Manchester, but quite a bit less than the west of England—if we look at the powers we can do better in the whole of Yorkshire. There is no housing investment fund in the Sheffield city region deal, no control of railway stations and no community infrastructure levy. All those things are held by the Mayor of Manchester, so why do we have to have second best in Yorkshire? We can negotiate better than that across the whole of Yorkshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. He accuses the Government of not talking, but they have talked at great length to the leaders of councils and to councils in the Sheffield city region. When the deal was signed up to by the four council leaders in the South Yorkshire districts in 2014, that was before Chesterfield and Bassetlaw came in. They came in at a later stage and if they had not, the deal would have been agreed and an election would have been held this year for an elected mayor. That will now happen next year. All those four leaders signed up to the election and the statutory instrument is being put through. I ask my hon. Friend to do a deal for his constituency and the rest of Yorkshire, and not to let our deal be held up on that basis.

I am slightly disappointed, as I was hoping that my hon. Friend would announce his candidature for Sheffield city mayor, but I will give way if he decides to make such an announcement tonight. The plain fact of the matter for my hon. Friend and for the Government is whether they are seriously going to impose an expensive mayoral election on the people of South Yorkshire when two of the four authorities are opposed to it. Are they seriously going to do that for a mayor who will have no powers and no money?

I am all in favour of all-party talks and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East has been working closely with the Government on this, but I would ask him, the Government and John Mothersole, who is the chief executive of South Yorkshire and a distinguished public servant, but perhaps a little too associated with one deal, whether we could try another plan—the best chief executives always have a plan A, a plan B, a plan C and a plan D—which I will suggest in a spirit of compromise. Members of all parties at a local and national level have been ringing me up over the past few days. Some have suggested a staged approach if there was a commitment to all-Yorkshire devolution. My hon. Friend has said himself that he would not rule that out in the future. Our good colleague, and former MP, Richard Caborn, has said the same. He would not rule that out. Could we not do it now? We could bring it in very rapidly. Perhaps we could have that staged approach with a mayoral election in South Yorkshire followed by an all-Yorkshire election a couple of years later. Those are possibilities.

I have one more suggestion to make to the Minister in a moment, but I just want to look briefly at one other factor. I said yesterday that an idea is serious once people start betting on it, and I noted today that a book has been opened on the first Yorkshire mayor. I was rather surprised that I was at 4-1. I am not sure whether anybody, even a member of my family, has put a bet on today, but I am ruling myself out. Various other hon. Members are on the list, but I will not embarrass them. I will say only that Jessica Ennis-Hill is at 33-1 and it surprises me that she is the first woman on that list, because there are many, many strong candidates. I can think of four women council leaders in Yorkshire off the top of my head, and it would be something if Yorkshire were to have the first female major metropolitan mayor.

When the Select Committee took evidence from Lord Kerslake about devolution, he made it clear that a stepping stone approach may well work in terms of different devolution deals. Why would the hon. Gentleman not now commit to moving ahead with Greater Yorkshire? What is it about Doncaster and Barnsley that is so attractive to Keighley that he needs those in a deal in order to move ahead with it? Why is that?

In direct response to that, let me conclude with a suggestion to the Minister. It is possible that he will not initiate talks tonight. I hope he will—I have great hope and faith—but he may just not do so. This Minister from a Lancashire constituency—I put it delicately —may tell us a lot about his three happy years as a student in Sheffield, and we are looking forward to hearing about that, but it is just possible that to solve this problem we need a higher authority than the Minister—the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister or even the Prime Minister’s hero, Geoffrey Boycott. I am secretary of the all-party group on Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire and I have written to the Archbishop of York asking him to consider calling a meeting of all those involved in the devolution process to try to make some progress, which the people of Yorkshire sorely need. The Archbishop of York’s office has told me that he is supportive of the process of Yorkshire devolution, and he will closely examine the proposals of the 17 councils involved and will be in contact with the bishops of Leeds and Sheffield about the most appropriate course of action to take.

So I leave the Minister with two questions. Are the Government against the principle of One Yorkshire devolution or, as various hon. Members have suggested, would they be prepared to accept it as the final destination on an agreed staged process over the next two or three years? Secondly, if it is forthcoming, would the Minister accept an invitation from the Archbishop of York, even if he will not initiate talks himself, to take part in talks on Yorkshire devolution and how the people of Yorkshire can get what many of the great cities of England already have?

It is great to have a Yorkshire woman MP in the Chair for this debate. Devolved decision making over the past 20 years has been like a game of snakes and ladders; we have been up ladders and down snakes. We have had Yorkshire Forward and the Yorkshire Assembly, as part of the regional settlement; it is worth noting that only two of the Government regions in England which are still in use for a number of functions are not points on a compass and reflect a geographic area. The first is London, which has had its devolution settlement with the Mayor and Assembly since 1999, and the second is Yorkshire. After the regional development agencies were abolished, Government policy moved on to the local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities, and now Government policy is for metro mayors and city regions.

In Yorkshire these structures are still opaque and confusing for most people. People in many of our towns and cities would not recognise themselves as being part of a city region, but they understand the idea of Yorkshire. Yorkshire people are proud of being part of Yorkshire, and it is time that our identity and regional uniqueness were acknowledged, and not dismissed by this Government. If our region could speak with a single voice, it would be a player on the world stage, rather than on the national stage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) said, both industry and the unions have backed the One Yorkshire model. They want to develop region-wide hubs around IT, tourism, food and advanced manufacturing, including low-carbon and renewable energy, helping to create 21st-century jobs and 21st-century solutions which can be the envy of the world and start to rebalance our economy away from London. That is the most important goal for our region and others.

Yorkshire’s cultural achievements are legion: the world’s first ever film was filmed in 1888 in Roundhay; the first ever football club, Sheffield FC, was founded in 1874; and, as hon. Members might recall, in the London 2012 Olympics if Yorkshire had been a country it would have finished 12th in the medals table. Obviously, that is not forgetting this weekend’s eighth super league grand final win by Leeds Rhinos from my constituency. Yorkshire pudding is an integral part of our national dish, the Sunday roast.

Our whole character is based on our regional cultural establishment. This year, we have had the UK city of culture in Hull, which has been a platform not just for Hull, great as it was, but for the whole of Yorkshire. Leeds is bidding to be the European capital of culture in 2023. How good would it be to be part of a One Yorkshire authority where we could all amplify that achievement globally? Furthermore, Yorkshire’s interconnectivity and transport issues need a single voice.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) on securing such an important debate.

In May this year, just five months ago, six metro mayors were elected to the combined authorities in England. Those six mayors—three in the northern powerhouse—have the power to create jobs, improve skills, drive forward their local economy and improve transport. Already they are creating a single point of accountability for residents, and have become powerful advocates for their area. Let us consider two of them. Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley has created the first mayoral development corporation outside London and is already attracting not just national but international businesses to the Tees Valley so that he can turn around SSI—Sahaviriya Steel Industries—steelworks. One mayor, one point of accountability driving forward his economy.

Andy Burnham, who will be familiar to those on the Labour Benches, is the metro mayor for the great city of Manchester. In one of the most striking acts of leadership that I have seen, he stood strong, representing his city and our whole nation, against a terrorist outrage that took place in that city just days after he was elected. One city, one mayor standing together against terrorism.

As with all devolution settlements across the United Kingdom, the process of passing powers from central Government to our regions is a one-way street. Metro mayors are already asking the Government what happens once they have fully implemented their devolution deal. What is the next natural step to return power, money and influence to their region?

These early adopters, these mayors, are viewed with envy by the residents and the business communities around them. When people turn on their telly and see Ben Houchen, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham standing there with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as they did this summer, they naturally ask—as I have been asked in Yorkshire—why is my area being left behind?

The metro mayors, created by this Government, form a partnership of equals with Government. They sit at the top table to talk about housing, economic development and, crucially, Brexit. That is why this Government believe that the South Yorkshire devolution deal should proceed. There can be no devolution two without a devolution one going on in the first place.

The hon. Member for Keighley asked why Manchester has so many powers. Manchester and its mayor have currently negotiated four deals with the Government. The Sheffield city region deal is the start of devolution, not the end of it. As a Conservative Government, we are not making a narrow political point. We will not gain any advantage from having a South Yorkshire mayor. I guess that the people of Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield deserve the devolution that they have been promised.

Those areas came together in 2015 and asked this Government for the deal. We believed then—and still believe now—that passing power and money from Whitehall to those town halls can transform the lives of people in South Yorkshire. Then Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield reaffirmed their commitment to the deal—not once, not twice but on three separate occasions. At their request, not the Government’s request, we legislated on two occasions to put ourselves in the position that we are in today. It is the law of the land, debated in this House, passed by this House, and voted on by this House that the mayoral election in the Sheffield city region will take place on 3 May 2018. The Sheffield city region deal is by all measures a good deal. It will bring £30 million a year of new Government money into one of the most deprived regions of the UK. It is one of the most generous devolution deals the Government have agreed. It equates to £22 per person per year in the Sheffield city region, compared with just £11 in Manchester.

On 3 May 2018, when the new South Yorkshire mayor is elected, the people of South Yorkshire—not the politicians—will, just like the people of the Tees Valley, Manchester and Liverpool, have a strong local voice to represent them at the top table with the Government.

While it is unfortunate that two of the local authorities that signed up to that deal in its original form have not consented to proceed to consult on the powers of the mayor, I can confirm that, as far as the Conservative party is concerned, I spoke last night to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who is the Conservative party chairman, and we are proceeding to select our candidate for this important election.

The reason I make that point is that I say this to the new mayor of South Yorkshire, whoever he or she may be: we understand the challenges South Yorkshire faces, we believe that an elected mayor can give South Yorkshire the leadership it clearly needs, and we will work with them, whoever they may be, to ensure that the nearly £1 billion of Government money that has been promised to South Yorkshire is delivered to the people of South Yorkshire.

It took my breath away when the leader of Sheffield City Council, Julie Dore, told me this summer that she never thought she would live to see the day in South Yorkshire when a Labour council—in fact, two Labour councils—egged on by local MPs, would reject £1 billion from a Tory Government because of factionalism and infighting in the Labour party in South Yorkshire.

I say to the Minister in good faith that he needs to be very careful about the tone of his comments. We have had a good-natured and constructive debate tonight about a very important subject, but the leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster have done what they have done because they genuinely believe it is in the best interests of the areas they represent.

Well, I look forward in future debates to never hearing a whimper from the Labour Benches about supposed Government cuts. I have lived in South Yorkshire, and I know how deprived some of these areas are. People in Barnsley, Doncaster, Sheffield and Rotherham deserve the £1 billion the Government have brought forward for them.

I will not take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. All I can say is that the people who are trying to undermine this deal know exactly who they are, and it is shame on them, shame on them, shame on them.

I will not take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Let me turn to devolution in the rest of Yorkshire. We welcome the discussions that have taken place over the summer, with talks having restarted after a significant period of stalemate. It is absolutely clear that there is no agreement around what has been referred to as the One Yorkshire deal. A report in Sheffield’s The Star yesterday confirmed that 11 of the 20 councils in Yorkshire support this proposal. York, Hambleton, Harrogate, Scarborough, North Yorkshire, Ryedale and Wakefield have said that they will not proceed with it. Although some elements of the media may choose to ignore that inconvenient truth, it is simply not the case that the coalition of the willing has had or does have wide support for its proposal.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his letter dated 15 September, he is happy to meet leaders to discuss a Greater Yorkshire deal, which could be an exciting and groundbreaking devolution deal, passing real power and real influence from the people in London back to the people of Greater Yorkshire. He has also confirmed that a Greater Yorkshire deal should not and cannot include any of the South Yorkshire boroughs. That is because to do so would undermine fundamentally the position of good faith that underpins both the Sheffield city region deal and all devolution deals that the Government seek to negotiate.

If there were a desire from the northern Lincolnshire area to be involved in that process, would that be looked at by Ministers?

Whoever is involved in the Greater Yorkshire deal, it is for Greater Yorkshire leaders to decide, perhaps with Lincolnshire, whether that should proceed.

In conclusion, if Yorkshire leaders come to Government with a widely supported, ground-up Greater Yorkshire deal involving—

I am sorry, I cannot because I do not have time.

If Yorkshire leaders come to Government with a widely supported, ground-up Greater Yorkshire deal involving a single mayoral combined authority that does not in any way undermine the Sheffield city region deal, we will welcome that. We stand ready. We will meet with people, including John Sentamu, because we believe that that deal, together with the South Yorkshire deal, has the potential to drive forward devolution in Yorkshire.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).