Business frustration at lack of progress in devolution debate

Jonathan Oxley Picture Bruce Rollinson
Jonathan Oxley Picture Bruce Rollinson
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I am looking forward to hearing firm commitments aligned to the Government’s Northern Powerhouse agenda. Businesses in this region tell me they are frustrated at what they see as lack of progress in the devolution debate, blaming political in-fighting.

The general feeling towards the Northern Powerhouse agenda is scepticism – and that’s putting it politely.

Time and again, I’m reminded that if Manchester can get its act together and the Sheffield City Region can submit a devolution bid, why can’t the rest of Yorkshire get on with it before the opportunity is lost?

Part of the answer is the fact that Yorkshire and the Humber is a very big, very diverse region. It isn’t as simple as drawing a ring around all or part of it and declaring it a homogenous whole that will work better for all.

The Institute of Directors believes that rebalancing the economy by developing the North can be a successful strategy. We also agree that our cities (and the businesses within them) will drive the growth of GDP, one of the main goals of devolution.

That may suggest that our devolution structures should be based on city regions, but it is important to remember that Yorkshire also relies on tourism, agriculture and access to our coasts. Whatever structures are put in place must maximise the potential in all of our assets. It is a wonderful whole.

It may be that the starting point is four or five devolved regions within Yorkshire and the Humber, although one would expect them to start co-operating on matters such as transport infrastructure as soon as possible. In my view, the fewest realistically achievable bids that together cover the whole region should be progressed as quickly as possible to at least get us to a starting point.

Even the way the IoD is structured recognises the differences within our region, but it still looks to have an overall consistent set of policies and activities. We are also starting to work more closely with our colleagues in the North East and North West on a wider Northern Powerhouse agenda.

There is also the thorny issue of elected mayors, seen as part of the price for having a devolution deal. Since the last election this has been firmed up as an absolute requirement. If that‘s the case then those who don’t like this medicine need to find a way of swallowing it for the greater good.

The objection that mayors as a concept were rejected on the last occasion people were asked for an opinion doesn’t hold up. At that time there was no wider agenda and no obvious purpose to having a mayor.

In the context of an overall devolution package our local authorities, LEPs and their business partners should be working to persuade people that the principle of elected mayors should be accepted.

The IoD wants the whole region to benefit from the opportunities that devolution and the development of a Northern Powerhouse bring. It is already apparent that the good work done in bringing together the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Leeds City Region LEP is bringing benefits.

Whilst there have been political clashes it has become evident that parties with differing views understand the need to work together in the name of progress.

That is partly pragmatism and partly a learning process as everyone moves through what is previously uncharted territory.

It is also, I hope, an appreciation that the people and the businesses of the region won’t forgive our leaders if they don’t find a way of making the most of the opportunities that the devolution agenda brings to turn talk of a Northern Powerhouse into a reality.