Yorkshire Post article – Why East-West is the best devolution plan for York and North Yorkshire
October 12, 2020
After years of discussion and debate, it seems that we are finally on the verge of closing the gap with many urban areas around the country and securing a devolution deal for York and North Yorkshire. The creation of a combined authority, headed by an elected mayor, would mean an additional layer of local government for North Yorkshire districts, which already have two. That is why it is vital that any devolution deal is accompanied by wider reorganisation of our local authorities.
One option is to have a single unitary authority for York and North Yorkshire to mirror the combined authority. The problem however is that this would create two tiers to administer the same area and will inevitably lead to conflict and confusion as to the respective roles of the mayor and the council.
Another option is to keep York’s existing unitary authority and create a second unitary authority from the seven districts of North Yorkshire. This would arguably be the least disruptive option and would allow North Yorkshire County Council to take on the responsibilities of the districts whilst continuing with its strong tack record of providing local services. The drawback however is the sheer geographical size of North Yorkshire is not ideal for the purposes of local decision making. It would also leave York as very much the junior partner in the combined authority and would be a missed opportunity for the city to remove the arbitrary boundary with the rest of the ceremonial county.
After much thought therefore, I have decided to give my backing for a third proposal which is gaining traction locally. The East/West proposal would create two unitary authorities of similar population size and comparable economic heft. York would join with Selby, Ryedale and Scarborough to form the eastern unitary authority, with Craven, Harrogate, Richmondshire and Hambleton forming the western authority.
This approach has several benefits, the main one being that it will get the balance right between creating authorities that have the scale and capacity to invest in improved services, whilst being small enough to remain accountable to local people. Two equal partners will also complement the mayoral combined authority, creating a balanced political structure and spreading investment evenly around the county.
For York, the reorganisation presents an opportunity to strengthen existing links with the surrounding area and to push for mutually beneficial investment in and around the vital A64 transport artery. Our thriving tourism industry in the city centre will complement rural and coastal tourism in the North York Moors and Scarborough, Bridlington and Whitby. Our adult social care and children’s services, already under pressure, will benefit from the additional scale and capacity that a unitary authority will bring. Annual efficiencies from the East/West model are expected to be £33-56 million in total, not insignificant at a time when City of York Council are trying to find £4m in budget savings.
Over and above the economic and administrative benefits, it is about finding a system of local government that works for York and North Yorkshire in the long-term. What we can do without is being back in a position where we are discussing local government reorganisation in twenty years time. The combined authority under a powerful elected mayor will ensure that our voice is heard on the regional and national level, whilst two unitary authorities will preserve local accountability on the issues that are closest to home, from new housing growth in our towns and villages to the support offered to our children at school.
Regardless of which model is finally adopted, as power is devolved from the national to the regional level, in turn we must take the opportunity to devolve power within North Yorkshire. The loss of the district councils will mean that several towns across the county will lose their role as administrative centres. As a result it is only right that York and towns such as Harrogate and Scarborough regain their city and town councils, with independent income streams and a real say over local planning and the provision of local facilities.
The last few years have been defined by uncertainty around our health, our economy and our politics. Despite all of this, I am optimistic about the future of our region. We have a Government that remains committed to ‘levelling up’ around the country. This is not just about railways and roads; it is about shifting the country’s centre of power and productivity. With a devolution deal of its own York and North Yorkshire will finally be able to get in on the action.