In December last year residents of Doncaster and Barnsley voted to reject the government’s ‘Sheffield City Region’ combined authority which will see an elected metro mayor in a region straddling South Yorkshire, and parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has persistently rejected demands from many of the region’s politicians, including MPs and council leaders, for a broader devolution package which would encompass the entire region, respecting its natural geography and shared cultural identities.
The introduction of metro mayors in a number of urban centres has been hailed by the government as delivering devolution for England, addressing the imbalance created when devolved governments where set up in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But whether its the Sheffield City Region with its soon-to-be-elected metro mayor, or some other kind of super-mayor for Yorkshire as a whole, the government appears to have little intention of delivering anything but a paltry reorganisation of local government, combining existing local authorities and their powers in a new super-authority, run by a directly elected mayor, but without an elected council or assembly of any kind. The mayor will be free from the hindrance and burden of ongoing public scrutiny or democratic accountability.
England needs genuine decentralisation that moves power out from London and into England’s cities and counties. Metro mayors are in fact the very opposite: amalgamation and centralisation diverting power away from communities and upwards to an all powerful mayoralty, a new layer or bureaucracy, and no real accountability or democracy beyond the mayor’s own electoral mandate.
Unnecessary and excessive centralisation, such as this, damages our democracy. It empowers bureaucrats and pen pushers, leaving ordinary people and communities virtually powerless, subject to laws made and decisions taken high up a managerial chain of command by people with limited or no direct knowledge of local circumstances or needs. This is not devolution, it does not enhance our democracy or lead to effective administration. It will certainly not address the feeling of being ignored and forgotten that is common in many communities around Britain.
Yorkshire and the rest of England needs devolution. It must be even and fair across the land. It must be on a par with existing devolved governments in the rest of the United Kingdom. It should not seek to separate urban hubs from the rural regions which surround them and with which they are intricately intertwined. It should not be imposed by central government, as is happening with metro mayors and combined authorities, but should be an initiative coming from the ground up, negotiated with and supported by central government. It should respect natural regions and communities, especially when they are bound by strong collective identities, as is so clearly the case throughout Yorkshire.
Devolution is a step on the path to a federal Britain. But it must be done right, with the collective and mutual interests of all involved. Sadly, we have a UK government which seems interested only in capturing the vast potential economic benefits of devolution and federalism, through top-down devolution which merely imitates decentralisation, rather than truly empowering communities and people throughout the UK.
By Robert Jones
Leader of the Federalist Party