Cllr John Fareham is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Hull City Council. He was first elected in 1983.
On 1st April 1996, the much-loathed county council of Humberside, along with Avon, Merseyside, and other abominations of the 1972 Local Government Act was finally abolished. Or was it?
Humberside lives on in the name of the police, the fire service, and the BBC Radio station. Like an embarrassing aroma at a party, it lingers. Does the name matter? Probably not – except for unreconstructed recidivists who seem unable to progress institutional thinking beyond “Humberside by stealth”.
Want a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)? Make one out of the four district councils born from the demise of Humberside. (North Lincolnshire, NE Lincolnshire, East Riding of Yorkshire, and Kingston upon Hull).
Sub-regional Planning Board? Make one out of the four…
Want a Regional body? Call it Yorkshire and the Humber so we can take in some of Lincolnshire – the other enormous historic county.
Because Associated British Ports own all the Humber ports some argued it creates a coherent economic identity. As if the views of a company largely owned by non-local financial investment companies was the sole identifier in the area: an estuarial river of some 38 and a quarter miles length, spanned by not even a handful of bridges.
The two Lincolnshire councils, their identification of community clear in their names, are about the size of either Hull or East Riding individually, a significant imbalance on the two banks of the river. Traditionally the South Bank and Hull were Labour with East Riding, Conservative – an imbalance, now three to one, the other way. Hull and East Riding on the North Bank are comparably sized by population and number of councillors, but one is a compact industrial, commercial, and cultural centre; the other is suburbia to Hull or, at the other end of its enormous area (the council with the longest stretch of coast on the East Coast) it is rural looking towards York/Leeds. This is not a match made in heaven.
Lately, the two Lincolnshire councils became Conservative, realising that, away from the docks and riverside industry, their community of interest is with Lincolnshire – and if a connection with Yorkshire is seen for many, it is Doncaster rather than Hull. Why does this matter? Because once again the Conservative Party is getting tied up in knots about local government re-organisation, this time bypassing the Royal Commission/Parliamentary route.
The constant mantra of “Combined Authorities”, or “yet another tier of politics further removed from the people” mixed with the current trend towards councils only being allowed in one LEP is a spectacular act of unnecessary problem creation. Yorkshire, the largest County in the country, rural but containing many major Cities, seems incapable of any natural grouping for Combined Authorities. North Yorkshire and its districts cannot agree; nobody really wants Hull (too big to join equally with neighbours, too small to join another City with equality). We have all endured the failure of “One Yorkshire” (an absurd idea of one Mayor for an area of 5,064 and a quarter sq. miles). At various times Hull has seen the dream team as being part of the Leeds City Region, South Yorkshire – who themselves also didn’t see joining One Yorkshire as viable. Wakefield has found no natural home – the truth is away from perhaps Leeds/Bradford, Yorkshire is too big and too diverse for a one size fits all approach. As early Kings parcelled out administrative areas to favoured retainers; as medieval trade spoke for precise areas, and as local government evolved to be local rather than remote, the idea of a Combined Authority is alien.
As for LEPs, one can only sympathise with East Riding (ideally in both North Yorkshire and Hull) and the Lincolnshire authorities – one set of interests connected to an industrial river and another set to a rural and suburban Lincolnshire. The pragmatic Conservative answer is obvious – if your council is both rural/industrial, or suburban/rural let it join an industrial and a rural LEP – not shoehorn it into a single area based on a political whim – ministerial not even Parliamentary
Eric Pickles, in his own inimitable style, once said “Chums, why does it matter to us what structure you choose to run your councils?” That is the pragmatic Conservative way. Funding remains overwhelmingly set and apportioned by Westminster, and as competitive bidding is the name of the game today, then does it really matter what number of LEPs there are? If either Lincolnshire council gets funding for rural employment initiatives via membership of a Lincolnshire LEP – or obtains access to industrial employment regeneration working with the North Bank: that is good governance when a Council is charged with serving all its communities. Shoe-horning into a single-interest LEP when a council is diverse is to set up failure.
As Conservatives, we believe in pragmatism, and accept Parliament is sovereign: Parliament, not Ministers.
If Ministers want to bring back failed counties such as Humberside, let them do it by the open and accountable Royal Commission and proposals laid before the House. Otherwise let councils deliver their tasks, via competitive funding if needs be and Minsters determine. But do not try to slew democracy by hidden persuasion. Threatening with being placed at the “back of queue” if a Ministerially approved Combined Authority is not accepted. Demanding membership of a single LEP when Parliament has approved a Council area of twin interests is fundamentally wrong. It removes the “local” from local government and subverts the will of Parliament in setting up the 1996 settlement. By all means, undo that settlement, Parliament is sovereign and we exist at their pleasure. But let it be the will of Parliament not the Divine Right of Ministers.