Kevin Hollinrake is Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, and co-chair of the APPG for the Northern Powerhouse.
The problem with clichés is that they are often over-used and then risk becoming meaningless. But there’s nothing meaningless about the ‘North-South divide’. It’s real, it’s serious and it’s damaging. To be fair to this government, this has been a problem for many generations and with governments of all political make-ups. Nor, in truth, is it really the North versus the South. It’s London versus all the other regions. To put it in perspective, for every £100 invested in London, only £35.81 is spent in our region.
This is exactly why devolution is so necessary and why it is long overdue. We badly need investment in the Yorkshire and Humber region and we need the decision-making powers at regional level to decide how best to spend it.
This is why I welcomed Transport for the North’s Draft Strategic Plan, published in January, which proposed a 50 per cent increase in funding and investment for the North of England. It will centre around improving connections between the northern towns and cities as well as major projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. This, in turn, will mean that the number of people who are able to reach Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool in under an hour will increase from 10,000 to 1.3 million, creating a labour market equivalent to the one enjoyed by London. It will finally close the huge gap in the opportunities available to people living across the North, including in my own constituency of Thirsk and Malton.
So this is a good start, but we need more than this. I am co-chair of the newly formed APPG for the Northern Powerhouse which is a cross party group, made up of MPs, civic leaders, peers and business leaders to speak with one voice to make sure that we attract our fair share of investment to the North of England and to ensure that we have greater influence at Westminster. This is an opportunity for us all, whatever our political affiliation, to pull together with regional businesses to identify how much we need to invest in our roads and rail, in skills and apprenticeships, in housing, in broadband and mobile connectivity and much more. We need to ensure that we get the autonomy to spend it in a way that befits our region, that gives a massive boost to our economy, creates jobs and makes us all better off. I fully support the proposal that Northern Powerhouse Rail, our Crossrail for the North, should be brought forward to be delivered at the same time as HS2’s completion in 2032/33.
It’s time we agreed exactly what shape that autonomy will take. We need to put party politics and city rivalry aside so that we finally reach agreement on our own Yorkshire devolution deal. We’re getting there. The Sheffield City deal which will include Barnsley, Doncaster, Sheffield and Rotherham, which was agreed in 2012, is now expected to go ahead after some setbacks when Doncaster and Barnsley said they would prefer to be part of a One Yorkshire deal. They are now going ahead on the understanding that any one authority can subsequently decide to leave to join a full Yorkshire devolution deal. That leaves the rest of Yorkshire to decide how it wants to go ahead.
The One Yorkshire deal is now gathering momentum, potentially involving 18 out of 20 councils and encompassing 5.4 million people. It has the support of council leaders across the Yorkshire counties, MPs and the CBI, and it makes sense. After all, what county is more united than the people of Yorkshire who believe, without a shadow of doubt that, together, we are the greatest county in England – God’s Own County? Together, as one Yorkshire, we will be able to attract new investment to develop and grow our economy, to regenerate our cities and towns to develop the skills, talent and infrastructures we need for our new life post Brexit. By working together on a large regional scale, we will be much better placed to cooperate with and work alongside other devolved areas such as our neighbours in Greater Manchester, who have made such a success of it.
I am wholly behind this principle although, within this structure, I would like to see three or four mini-regions – York, North Yorkshire and Hull, Leeds and Bradford, all with our own agreements and each with our own Mayor but coming together under one jurisdiction. This would give each city area an opportunity to really represent and look after the needs of the local residents and businesses, which inevitably varies from city to city. I’m not convinced that a ‘one mayoral hat fits all’ is the best option. I think we need to work within our smaller city communities to identify local needs and solutions and to ensure each is allocated its fair share, without the risk of being undermined by either political or city rivalry which, let’s face it, has hitherto been the main obstacle to finding a devolution solution for Yorkshire.
Perhaps we should look to the North East for inspiration. Tees Valley (made up of five boroughs) already has its own metro mayor in Ben Houchen, the Conservative who was elected last May and who is already working on a long-term strategy for growth for the area. A second deal for the North of Tyne (three boroughs), worth an initial £600 million, was agreed at the end of last year. North of Tyne will have an interim mayor this summer, with a new mayor elected in 2019. I wish them well and I hope that we, in Yorkshire, one way or another, will follow their lead later this year.
One of Yorkshire’s great strengths is our size and our diversity; with finance, legal, manufacturing, medical, digital, retail, food, agriculture and energy all strong sectors contributing to a healthy economy and then, of course, there’s the huge tourist industry. We have so much and yet we could have so much more, if, together, we allowed ourselves to become the masters of our own destiny.