Last week, Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) voted to join the Leeds City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) devolution proposal as associate members.
This decision marks arguably the most important step in Harrogate’s journey to join a devolution deal but, does this mean that the district has sealed its fate with West Yorkshire?
Not entirely. Nor does it mean that Harrogate has closed the door on any North Yorkshire bid, much less does it means we will be leaving the county altogether.
So, with HBC hoping to make a permanent decision on where their devolution future lies by the end of March, we break the complicated issue down as best we can.
What is devolution?
In May last year, Chancellor George Osborne announced that he would be introducing a city devolution plan for England in his first post-election speech.
As such, English cities would get powers over housing, transport, planning and policing with the aim to stop running everything from London.
Under the plan intended to ‘balance the economy’, only combined authorities that elected their own mayor would be given control of local transport, housing and skills.
How could this help Harrogate?
Devolution deals give places in England greater responsibility and control over decisions and spending in their region.
Instead of being instructed by London on where to spend money, authorities could focus spending on local priorities which better reflect the values, ambitions and identities of the area.
Harrogate has been included in three different bids for devolved powers from the Government, all offering different advantages if offered full membership.
Have any other areas been given devolved powers?
Greater Manchester was the first area to have their devolution bid accepted by Government after all 10 councils agreed to the area’s first mayoral election.
The North-East, Tees Valley, South Yorkshire (as part of Sheffield City Region and Cornwall have also signed up with their deals to take control over their own affairs.
In November, Merseyside and the West Midlands became the latest areas to agree devolution deals with George Osborne leaving the rest of Yorkshire in an unusual position.
Why hasn’t Yorkshire signed up to a deal?
In September last year, the Prime Minister was picked up on a microphone ahead of a speech in Leeds saying that Yorkshire people ‘hate each other’.
David Cameron told BBC’s Test Match Special it was ‘a total joke’ but even West Yorkshire Combined Authority leader Coun Peter Box admitted there was ‘some truth in it’.
Despite numerous MPs and council leaders across the county favouring a ‘Greater Yorkshire’ bid, West Yorkshire appear to be more select on which neighbours to join up with.
Instead, West Yorkshire want to split away in a Leeds City Region bid consisting of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield plus North Yorkshire districts of Craven, Harrogate and Selby.
So should Harrogate go with Leeds?
West Yorkshire leaders submitted their bid on September 4, 2015, and said it best reflects the government’s creation of city region region-based Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
Leeds City Region has the UK’s largest city region economy outside London with an economic output of £57.7bn and over 50,000 people commuting between Craven, Harrogate, Selby, York and West Yorkshire.
Leaders submitted 27 devolution ‘asks’ focusing on transport, housing, business support, public service reform skills and new fiscal powers to ‘transform the City Region’s economy’.
Coun Box said the deal would benefit Harrogate because it had the support of businesses and was the best bid ‘economically’.
He said: “Sometimes people overlook the fact the Government stated their intention through devolution was to grow economies in the north of England and we concur with that.
“We are a recognised economic area. If we are to grow the economy quickest it’s best done on a Leeds City Region basis.
“There’s a difference between branding Yorkshire as somewhere to visit and growing the different economies within the counties.
“We secured the biggest Growth Deal in the country last year, at £1.6billion, through the LEP and that has already created significant growth and jobs.
“We have strong relations with Harrogate council and we want to strengthen this. The deal will benefit not just Harrogate but the whole of the Leeds City Region.”
Where is North Yorkshire’s devolution bid?
This is the exact question on the lips of HBC’s leader Coun Richard Cooper who has been eager to present all options to council members ‘as soon as they became available’.
While some critics have accused North Yorkshire of dragging their feet, both the leader of the county council and the executive member for Highways said they have merely been ‘loyal’ to the Greater Yorkshire bid.
However, Coun Don Mackenzie, executive member for Highways, has admitted that this deal still doesn’t look likely unless Government instruct West Yorkshire leaders to work with it.
He also blamed opposition from West Yorkshire leaders for delaying the bid which, he believes, is the one that the Government and George Osborne truly wants to see.
He said: “The leaders of the Leeds City Region bid have stopped this going forward because they don’t think the Greater Yorkshire electorate will vote in a Labour mayor.”
With time ticking away though, a ‘Plan B’ York, North Yorkshire, East Riding (YNYER) bid will now be brought forward and is set to be discussed by Coun Mackenzie with council leaders on Friday, March 11.
Would Harrogate be more suited to go with a North Yorkshire deal?
Yes, according to Coun Mackenzie, because this deal would be more ‘Harrogate-centric’ and would eliminate the prospect of Harrogate being run by a Labour mayor in West Yorkshire.
Politics aside, Coun Mackenzie also doesn’t feel Leeds’ bigger economy will benefit Harrogate as West Yorkshire priorites and needs are ‘entirely different’ to North Yorkshire’s.
He said: “It doesn’t matter how big the economy is, Harrogate’s share from a Leeds City Region will be so much smaller because priorities are different.
“We’ve set out in our transport prospectus and local transport plan; the A59 from Harrogate to Skipton, a Harrogate Bypass and upgrading the Leeds-Harrogate-York railway line as our top three priorities.
“I don’t think you’ll get that in West Yorkshire. Highways and passenger transport are the real drivers of the economy, these get houses built and industrial activity.
“Harrogate town may see themselves as closer to Leeds but what about Masham, Ripon and Pateley Bridge? These are market towns and are closer with North Yorkshire economies.”
Coun Carl Les, leader of North Yorkshire County Council, echoed this and described Harrogate as part of the ‘North Yorkshire family’.
He said: “I value what Harrogate brings to the table, we would give them more of a say in the decision making than they would get in Leeds City Region.
“In Leeds, they may be a fish in a big pond but they might be without a rod. I believe they would have a much better chance of being heard and a much better chance of getting their point across.”
Hasn’t Harrogate already joined Leeds?
Only as associate members. This means that Harrogate effectively gets a ‘seat at the table’ to listen to policy ideas discussed by West Yorkshire.
Harrogate can still become associate members of a YNYER bid when it’s submitted but would need to be full members to have any vote in Mayoral elections.
This means Coun Cooper and Harrogate council members still have the tough job of choosing where to join as full members between the three competing bids.
He said: “The first thing I look at is what economic benefits will the deal have for Harrogate businesses, its impact on jobs and way of life.
“Second is the kind of relationship we have with an area, it needs to be the right kind of relationship for us. We need to get a good deal out of this,
“I think the Greater Yorkshire option is the best one to go for. Unfortunately I can’t get a date for when this will be brought forward and there are still lots of questions around the YNYER bid.
“I want to argue the case for Harrogate being the conference hub of the Leeds City Region. We need to explore what a closer relationship here might bring for cash, jobs and growth.”
What happens now?
The Chancellor will deliver his budget next week and, as such, Coun Cooper has set a deadline of the end of March to discuss any North Yorkshire bid.
Ultimately, the next few weeks will see decisions that will significantly shape how the county is run but Coun Car Les, leader of North Yorkshire County Council, is not rushing his decision.
He doesn’t believe there will be a deadline for bids announced in Mr Osborne’s budget but is unsure when, and if, the Chancellor will intervene to secure a Yorkshire deal.
He said: “Greater Yorkshire is still the favoured option of the Government but they will not impose yet because they want the decision to be from the bottom up.
“The YNYER deal would be our contribution to Greater Yorkshire so West Yorkshire have their ask on their side and we would have ours on our side. In that respect, the deal is completed.
“On Friday we will go through the YNYER bid in some detail and at that time it will become a much more public document and Harrogate members can have a look at it.
“If we were able to bring a Greater Yorkshire deal forward I’m sure it would be accepted almost immediately.
“We are all in this together, we have been doing a lot of leg work on the bid. I don’t think there’s the same urgency with the deadline. I’m told the government will not sign a deal next week.”