North Yorkshire told to 'pull their finger out' over Harrogate devolution bid

View of Harrogate district

View of Harrogate district

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North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) has been told to ‘pull their finger out’ and submit their devolution deal for Harrogate to consider next month.

Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) will make a decision on whether to join Leeds and other West Yorkshire authorities as part of a devolution deal on March 2.

Council members will decide during a free vote at a Full Council meeting whether they want to be part of an area known Leeds City Region.

A report presented to the council’s chief executive, Wallace Sampson, indicated the LCR Combined Authority deal is the only proposal that could be imminently considered.

However, the county council has asked Harrogate to delay their devolution decision in order to submit their York, North Yorkshire and East Riding (YNYER) proposal.

The report argues that all devolution deals have to be announced by the end of March 2016 and HBC’s leader, Coun Richard Cooper, has criticised the county council for the slow progress of their deal.

He said: “Instead of sending out press releases asking for delays, North Yorkshire need to pull their fingers out because we have been waiting years for their deal.

"I have repeatedly asked when a YNYER proposal is likely to come forward and received no reply.

"As late as last Saturday I met the Leader of North Yorkshire County Council and still no date was given.

“There is a general view that, in order to undertake the first mayoral elections in May 2017, we will have to announce a devolution deal by March 31.

“The LCR deal is the only one that looks likely to meet this deadline. The Greater Yorkshire deal is nowhere in sight and the YNYER negotiations have also lost pace.

“In my view, the deal is not going to be anywhere near ready on March 31 but, if it is, I will put it to the council.”

In recent months, the LCR devolution negotiations has outpaced those of the YNYER whilst the council’s preferred ‘Greater Yorkshire’ proposal has made no progress at all.

The report indicates that joining the LCR Combined Authority would be the ‘only realistic’ available to the council in the short term to meet the March deadline.

However it also states that, should a proposal relating to the YNYER devolution deal be presented to the council, a further report will be submitted to members setting out this options for the district.

Coun Carl Les, leader of NYCC, has now criticised HBC for rushing a decision on devolution and making a ‘premature’ choice on a crucial issue.

He said: “This vital decision on whether Harrogate district should remain with North Yorkshire or move decision-making powers to West Yorkshire is far too important to be taken too soon or too quickly.

“I am concerned that Harrogate Borough Council is bringing the extremely important devolution matter for determination to council next week when such a decision is unnecessary and premature.

“I believe that members of the council are being asked to make a choice whilst various devolution deals are still being negotiated with government.

“Surely the right time to take that decision is when there are clear options set out fully and clearly for councillors to consider.”

Coun Les has now asked Harrogate councillors to wait ‘a short time’ for every option to be put before them before deciding which devolution deal to progress with.

Harrogate has been at the centre of a tug-of-war between West and North Yorkshire councils over which group to join to agree a devolution deal with the Government.

The report states that, considering the size of the LCR £60bn economy, this deal would inevitably provide for a larger funding ‘pot’ and the potential for investment that the £20bn YNYER economy.

However, complications would arise over transport matters should Harrogate choose to join the Combined Authority as a full member.

Harrogate would need permission to delegate transport powers to the LCR as the authority for transport currently belongs to the county council.

Despite full membership of either Combined Authority providing the most positive economic outcomes for the district, a further report have to be prepared for elected members should they favour this option.

Coun Don Mackenzie, NYCC’s executive member for Highways, believes it would be beneficial for Harrogate to stay with North Yorkshire who understand the district’s transport needs.

He said: “Harrogate would be very uncomfortable if matters were transferred to West Yorkshire as they have different priorities to us.

“We are prioritising Harrogate’s transport and highways needs with our Strategic Transport Plan which includes a £33m bypass for the A59.

“It is my firm opinion that the best solution for Harrogate is to stay in the YNYER devolution bid, which has at its heart the ambitions and priorities of North Yorkshire, and especially of Harrogate.”

Coun Mackenzie admitted that currently the YNYER bid was undeveloped compared to its LCR rival but he stated it would only be a ‘short time’ before it would be finished for consideration.

He also described claims by Coun Cooper that there was an upcoming government deadline for choosing a devolution bid as ‘bogus’.

The report stressed that becoming a full member of the LCR would represent the biggest gains in terms of access to financial resources but the move would also present the biggest risks and barriers.

Coun Cooper stressed that he wanted to pursue a deal that would maximise economic opportunities that devolution would offer through better collaboration on transport, investment, skills and housing.

He said: “We are considering joining the LCR as an associate member, instead of full membership, and we keep the door open with YNYER when it comes forward.

“We can’t ignore the fact that we could become a member of an area of which may well be getting a huge amount of power and cash from Government.

“For Transport powers though, it does require the Secretary of State to transfer powers from North Yorkshire to Leeds City Region as full members.

“My priority has been to make sure all the deals done will benefit the Harrogate district but the final decision needs to be made by all elected council members.

“I want councillors to be free to make their own minds up on this. There will be no whips as I want to know what council members think.”