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From The Observer, 12th November, 2017
Written by Frances Perraudin

When Londoner Stewart Arnold first moved to Yorkshire in 1992 to lecture in business studies at Hull University, he was immediately enthralled by life in the place some natives like to call “God’s own county”. “It sometimes takes an outsider to realise what Yorkshire has, and it was very early on that I noticed it had a very special, separate sense of identity and community,” he says. 

 Arnold has spent much of the past two decades campaigning for devolution in the county. He chaired the Campaign for Yorkshire in the early 2000s, ahead of the failed bid by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott to establish a Yorkshire Assembly. Then, in 2014, he helped to found the Yorkshire party. The group, although still very small, has a handful of town and parish councillors and, until May, had mayors in the towns of Market Weighton and Hornsea.

Yorkshire, says Arnold, has a distinctive history, with its Viking influences, and a unique culture. With a population of 5.4 million people – bigger than Scotland’s – and eight cities of more than 100,000 people, the region, he argues, is more than capable of standing on its own feet. “Whether people are from Whitby or Hull or Halifax, they will all say they’re from Yorkshire, and are proud of it,” he says. But the region is not being given the opportunity to punch its weight.

Post-Brexit, with independence movements across the world gaining support, Arnold hopes the time for Yorkshire devolution might finally have arrived. On 1 August – when Yorkshire Day is celebrated across the county – 17 out of 20 Yorkshire local authorities formed a “coalition of the willing”, supporting proposals for a devolution deal.

The One Yorkshire plan, which originated with politicians in Leeds, would see one combined devolved authority – like those established in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region – for the whole of the county. It would be headed by a directly elected mayor and would oversee transport, economic development and skills. Yorkshire’s economy is currently worth an estimated £110bn, which supporters of the deal say could rise to £200bn in 30 years.

With cross-party support and backing from the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the TUC, One Yorkshire is certainly more popular than any proposal for devolution in the county to have gone before it. When former chancellor George Osborne asked regional leaders to send him their proposals for devolution deals in September 2015, he received five rival suggestions from across Yorkshire. “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else – we didn’t realise they hated each other so much,” said David Cameron the same year, not realising he was being recorded ahead of a speech in Leeds.

Only Sheffield, Rotherham and Wakefield city councils have declined to join the “coalition of the willing”. Sheffield and Rotherham are both holding out for a separate Sheffield City region deal, which has been signed off by the government and would see an elected mayor overseeing a combined authority with £900m of funding over 30 years.

The crunch moment is now approaching. Last Thursday Barnsley and Doncaster councils decided to give the public in both towns a vote on 20 December on whether they should join the Sheffield City region or One Yorkshire. While the results will not be legally binding, council leaders say they will “be respected”.

The government has insisted that it will not consider a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal that involves any of the South Yorkshire councils already signed up to the Sheffield City region deal. It plans to push ahead with elections for a metro mayor of the Sheffield City region next May, with or without the agreement of Barnsley and Doncaster. “A Sheffield City region deal, worth around £1bn to the region, has been agreed with the councils, legislated on by parliament, and partly implemented – and government has been absolutely clear that it will not undo it,” said the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse partnership, warns that campaigning for a One Yorkshire deal should not come at the expense of securing any other deal, saying that devolution of powers to the county is “the key missing piece in the northern powerhouse”.

“It’s ultimately the politicians who are most interested in the boundaries and the geography,” he says. “The business community is more bothered about the powers and what the mayor and the institution can do.”

John Grogan, MP for Keighley, says that much of the opposition to the idea of a One Yorkshire devolution settlement stems from fears by politicians that their respective parties might not win overall control. If Yorkshire were a parliamentary constituency it would be a marginal seat, with areas of South Yorkshire staunchly Labour and areas of North Yorkshire true-blue Tory.

There may also be a fear in government of the power that a mayor of Yorkshire could wield. “In Whitehall I’m sure civil servants are saying to government ministers, ‘You’ve got to be cautious with this because if you have a mayor of Yorkshire, they will be the number two mayor to London’,” says Grogan.

For Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central, the EU referendum was a game-changer for Yorkshire devolution. He says the region’s ability to compete and co-operate with other areas in Britain and beyond, once Brexit happens, would be enhanced by it acting together, rather than in smaller parts.

The referendum result, he says, demonstrated that many people in the north of England “felt that their town or their community had been forgotten about and left behind”. “There is absolutely a desire for political decision-making to be taken closer to the places that it will effect,” he says.

Grogan says that it is odd, given events in Catalonia, that the government has so far refused to meet council leaders to discuss the One Yorkshire proposals. “Let’s not exaggerate,” he says. “People aren’t going to be out on the streets in Leeds or Bradford tonight. But people are proud of Yorkshire and there is a feeling that we should be a little bit more in control of our own destiny.

“It’s not a revolutionary feeling. It’s just a very sensible, pragmatic view that if London has a bit more control and Scotland has a lot more control, then why can’t we have a bit more control? ”

Arnold agrees that there is increasingly a sense of detachment from the centres of political power, whether in the European parliament or Westminster. “Since the referendum, I have heard people saying more than once ‘Well, that’s Brussels sorted, now we’ve got to sort out London’.”