How North Yorkshire devolution went from full steam ahead to doubt and delay
Which way will the Government jump over its radical devolution plans for York and North Yorkshire?
Tory frustration at the lack of progress on such a major initiative - which would likely lead to an elected mayor for the whole county and the abolition of Harrogate Borough Council - is such that doubts are beginning to be expressed over its entire future.
The problem is essentially one of timing.
Is the uncertainty and turmoil from the ongoing Brexit talks and pandemic crisis really the right moment to plough ahead with what would be the biggest overhaul of local government here for 40 years?
If it were to go ahead, a devolution deal would mean North Yorkshire would join other areas of the country, including the Tees Valley and Sheffield City Region, with powerful metro mayors and a potential extra £2.4billion in investment in the local economy.
But, such are the fears over whether any of the changes can be achieved before the next set of county elections are scheduled to take place in North Yorkshire in May 2021 that the Tory leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Coun Carl Les took the dramatic step last week of writing to Cabinet Minister Robert Jenrick to express his “deepest concerns” that “a life-changing devolution deal” could be at risk.
The inevitable price for such a deal would be the slimming down of the current two-tier system of local government to be replaced by a new bigger, unitary council based, potentially, in Northallerton.
Alarmed by that prospect, district and borough council leaders are now rowing in the opposite direction, writing to the Prime Minister urging him to shelve local government reorganisation, to allow the region to focus on the battle against Covid-19.
Although there is little prospect of a meeting of minds even within the ranks of politicians usually singing from the same hymn sheet, the divisions within North Yorkshire are at least clear.
Backed by many business leaders, Carl Les, the Tory leader of North Yorkshire County Council maintains the region could cope with a major shake-up of local government during its battle with the coronavirus pandemic
Coun Les said: “We maintain that what’s needed, now more than ever, is the strongest possible devolution deal for the 800,000 people who live in York and North Yorkshire.
“Only the full benefits without delay will supercharge the economy and support businesses here, as they strive to recover from the body blow dealt by the pandemic.”
On the other hand, the region’s district and borough leaders - including Harrogate’s Richard Cooper - have urged the Government to allow devolution without the current two-tier local government set-up being replaced with a unitary authority.
Coun Cooper said: “I have never thought that linking re-organisation of local government in North Yorkshire with devolution - getting more powers from Westminster to exercise locally - was a good idea.
“The two issues are separate. Now it looks as though the Government may be reconsidering that link.
“It is more important to get this change right than to get it done quickly.”
In rare outbreak of harmony on the local political scene, local opposition parties are arguing that all plans for reorganising local government in North Yorkshire should now be shelved to focus on tackling coronavirus and supporting the flagging economy.
Harrogate and Knaresborough Lib Dem leader Coun Pat Marsh blasted the whole situation as a “shambles”.
She said: “Local Liberal Democrats have said from the very beginning: this is the worst possible time for transformational change in the way local services are run, when so many people are more reliant than ever on those services running smoothly.
“The whole devolution process has been a shambles and a distraction from providing the support our district’s residents needs.”
Harrogate and Knaresborough Labour Party is also supporting moves to delay the plans. A spokesperson said: “The proposals should not be rushed through, especially at this difficult time for councils, facing Government cuts of between 10 and 15% and having to combat the effects on the economy due to Covid-19 and a potential no-deal Brexit.”
The pressure to achieve devolution for North Yorkshire with its myriad of implications for council tax payers in the Harrogate district comes not only from local politicians, albeit mainly in the Tory Party.
Leading business figures in the region are also keen in the main for the very reasons that are now causing doubt and delay - the state of the British economy.
David Kerfoot, who chairs the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, fears the county could be consigned to “second division” status without the powers and funding that come from a devolution deal with central government.
Mr Kerfoot said: “It’s down to the local politicians.
“I just find it really staggering that some of them just don’t see the bigger picture, or the bigger prize or the bigger ask.
“Ultimately, I don’t know if the Government will say ‘we are going to stop devolution because we have too much on our plate with Brexit and Covid and the economic situation.
So which way will the Government swing?
The rumour mill at Westminster says the Devolution White Paper essential to the process going ahead - which had been scheduled for June, then postponed to September - will not now happen until next year.
But, if recent history has shown anything, it’s that predicting what is going to happen next can be a dangerous business.
Note: Since this story went to press, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government's press office now says the Devolution White Paper will come out "in due course" while Harrogate Borough Council told the Harrogate Advertiser it was still planning for the county council elections in May.
A council spokesperson said: "We continue to plan for the scheduled elections in 2021 and will continue to do so unless otherwise instructed by Government."
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