How should we approach the devolution debate? A perspective from York

York Liberal Democrat Council GroupSince the elections in May Liberal Democrats in York have been faced with ongoing questions surrounding devolution. The recent Summer Budget announcements on devolution pose us with many challenges however they also gives us a welcome opportunity to ensure that decisions can be taken closer to the communities they affect, rather than in Whitehall.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has paved the way for devolution in England with Nick Clegg announcing their City Deal in March 2012. They will hold the first elections for a directly elected metro-mayor in 2017. Authorities across the country and in Yorkshire now have the opportunity to follow this path and submit a bid to gain similar access to devolved budgets and power.

Yorkshire is an enormous geographical area which already has two Combined Authorities and three Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) in its boundaries. The number of possible deals is almost endless. There are debates raging about which towns and cities should and should not be included in any proposals to government.

Liberal Democrats in Yorkshire and the Humber support a broad Yorkshire wide devolution model, with regional party support for an elected assembly. This would come with enormous benefits including a clearly defined area and identity, no single dominant city, and 8% of the UK’s total GDP would lie within this area. Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland has backed a model of Yorkshire led devolution. He called on ministers to undo the carving up of Yorkshire and give the region its own mayor. However in the current ongoing discussions with council leaders across the region there appears to be little desire from other local authority leaders for this and the chances of devolution on this scale seem unlikely – but you never know!

Even if we discount this option, there are still numerous possibilities for the County and York specifically. Currently York sits in two Local Enterprise Partnerships (Leeds City Region and York, North Yorkshire & East Riding) and as well as this is a non-constituent member of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.  This patchwork of memberships complicates any decision that will be made on York’s future.

These discussions also pose us with the possibility of having a Metro Mayor and all the problems associated with it. A Metro Mayor would have limited accountability and will not be able to represent the vast differences across any region in Yorkshire.  We would rather have a local government that can respond directly to local needs. But as Tim Farron says if George Osborne insists that we have a Metro Mayor then will just have to win these elections too!

The current discussions surrounding devolution in Yorkshire still include an enormous number of potential outcomes. Here in York whatever happens elsewhere in the region we are determined to ensure that residents and businesses are able to have their say and help to decide on what is best for our city.  We will ensure that any devolution model adopted has public backing, delivers the best deal for York and is accountable to our residents. We are currently working with officers on the details of a consultation which will take place over the summer and present residents with a series of possible devolution models, including a Yorkshire wide partnership, York working with Leeds and West Yorkshire, working with North and East Yorkshire and to be fair, a model with no Combined Authority.

Our city-wide consultation planned for this summer will therefore involve residents on what devolution actually means for their lives and aspirations for the future, before we look at the choices we have more specifically. We believe that we have a duty to the city to explain properly what the decisions ahead mean for residents and businesses in York, so in addition to seeking views online, we will be talking to residents face-to-face over the coming months.

Despite the government’s recent u-turn over the electrification of the York to Manchester line there is still an enormous opportunity to play a leading role in the Northern Powerhouse. The commitments for more powers could include funding for the redevelopment of city centre sites and ring road improvements. It’s important that we get the best for York but it is also key that we do not let this opportunity slip us by. It is not often that we are presented with an opportunity to take power from Westminster and we must seize this chance.

To find out more and keep up to date with news and developments in York, please visit the York Liberal Democrats’ website or email [email protected]

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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  • John Tilley 5th Aug '15 - 12:47pm

    Interesting article but I would urge caution when it comes to elected mayors.
    The appearance of democracy as opposed to the substance may be what’s on offer.
    York Liberal Democrats are no fools and will be able to judge what is best for them.
    However, they do not have to look too far to find examples of the disasters that occur when this undemocratic form of local administration is forced down from above. Examples inclide Tower Hamlets, Doncaster, Newham, Greenwich, not to mention the ongoing nightmare of Boris the Buffoon in London.

    Imagine for example what would happen to this sort of story if one all powerful Conservative Mayor (directly elected after a mass of cash and local media bosses had made their election inevitabke) becomes master of all they can see in Yorkshire –

    Liberal Democrats should be on the side of the powerless, not the over-mighty.

  • Matt (Bristol) 5th Aug '15 - 3:39pm

    Thanks for this article, Keith! A long time ago I used to live in your ward.

    The ongoing support of LibDems in Yorkshire and elsewhere for a model of regional devolution that involves elected assemblies who are democratically accountable is exciting; this is one thing that is distinctive about what LibDems can bring to discussions about devolution.

    I have to say that reading the list of accredited groups within the LibDems, now including groups such as ALTER for the land value tax, I am always surprised that there is not a specific internal group lobbying for regional devolution in England and promoting discussion about English regional democracy and identity.

    For me, what is completely missing from all the discussions about borders and city regions and what mixtures of authorities should hold what powers is an element of democratic choice. Why should the powers that be (even if they are democratically elected councillors) endlessly slice and reslice what is effectively the corpse of the 1974 Local Government Act without directly asking the people who live in their territories who (and where) they want to be governed by?

    Having thought about it, – if we really do want to transition to regional authorities – I’d now be in favour of a form of plebiscite where people were asked to name up to 5 or 6 large towns or cities they would consent to be governed from. Then, wherever possible, draw up the results, ward by ward if necessary, to create maps of the regions people want to belong to…

  • Richard Underhill 5th Aug '15 - 4:55pm

    Interesting article but I would urge caution when it comes to elected mayors. Agree with John Tilley above.
    The government is deliberately creating a mish-mash. The Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells is in the middle of it.
    I agree with Charles Kennedy, despite John Prescott’s failure in the north-east referendum..

  • Yorkshire Guidon 5th Aug '15 - 8:53pm

    Keith – what’s your preference?

  • markfairclough 5th Aug '15 - 9:31pm

    what does everyone think of the Yorkshire First Party ideas for devolution?

  • markfairclough 5th Aug '15 - 9:33pm

    sorry I should have said for Yorkshire

  • Yorkshire Guidon 5th Aug '15 - 9:44pm

    Mark – they don’t differ from Yorkshire & the Humber Liberal Democrats policy which is a directly elected, accountable and transparent parliament for the whole of Yorkshire.

  • Alisdair McGregor 6th Aug '15 - 7:36am

    It’s important to note that there Yorkshire & Humber Liberal Democrats policy on regional devolution does not just call for a Yorkshire Parliament, but also for the wholesale abolition of the overlapping, undemocratic and redundant mess of combined authorities, city regions, police & crime commissioners and the like.

  • I also think that Keith’s breezy dismissal of campaigning for a Yorkshire Parliament just because (essentially) Peter Box wants to cling on to his combined authority powers in West Yorkshire is slightly disappointing.

  • (Matt Bristol) 6th Aug '15 - 5:18pm

    Quite seriously, could someone in the party please found an England-wide group to discuss and lobby for democratic and accountable models of English regional devolution, so I can join it?

    It is frustrating that it appears that this discussion is going on in the party Yorkshire but not (at least not in public) in other areas of England.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Aug '15 - 11:51am

    John Tilley

    Interesting article but I would urge caution when it comes to elected mayors.

    Indeed. This is a battle I have been fighting since I was Leader of the Opposition in the New Labour flagship council which wanted to be the first to introduce one-man one-vote i.e. the one man is the mayor, he is the only one who has a vote, all councillors have their voting power taken away and remain in just an advisory capacity. So keen were these neo-socialists to have this system that they pushed it as far as they could even before the legislation to allow them to do it completely was in place.

    By the way, since it now seems accepted that “neo-liberal” means some ideology I don’t recognise as anything to do with what I used to recognise as “liberalism”, I think it only fair to make a similar new word out of “socialist”, and argue that it is the natural development of that ideology. By “neo-socialist” I mean the same as what they called “National Socialist” in 1930s Germany. I.e. that belief in one-man one-vote as I have described it above.

    This idea that executive mayors are somehow a form of “devolution” should be opposed by any true liberal with our hearts and minds and guts and souls: it is against all we stand for.

  • Richard Underhill 7th Aug '15 - 1:20pm

    seriously, could someone in the party please found an England-wide group to discuss and lobby for democratic and accountable models of English regional devolution?

  • (Matt Bristol) 7th Aug '15 - 5:01pm

    RIchard, was that an agreement or a quotation from a reply?

    I don’t really know how one does it (as a mainly armchair member) but if you’re in, there’s 2 of us…

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Aug '15 - 5:32pm

    – Richard and Matt, come on over to:

    “The Liberal Democrat Federalist Group (LDFG) is a group made up of Liberal Democrat members and supporters that champion the idea of the United Kingdom becoming a federal nation.”

    I’m not sure whether the group intends to focus on the UK becoming 4 federal states or having a wider debate on other levels of federalism, but it would seem to be a good place to start the discussion!

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Aug '15 - 8:09pm

    Update: the group is indeed all about discussing different models of devolution and federalism within England and not just devolution limited to the nations.

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