Leeds was once lauded as an innovator in respect of city-regional governance. But, argues Iain Deas, while recent accounts have emphasised local disagreement about the geography of devolution deals, it is possible to interpret Yorkshire’s experience in a more positive light.

Recent media coverage of devolution deals in Yorkshire has highlighted conflict around rival proposals for new combined authorities. Pitched against plans to extend the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) to three neighbouring areas has been a rival proposal for a Greater Yorkshire combined authority covering the county in its entirety, minus South Yorkshire.

These and other proposals have vied for local agreement and central government approval. The result has been deadlock. Frustrated by the apparent inability of local political leaders to adhere to a timetable envisaging mayoral elections for new authorities in May 2017, David Cameron reportedly described Yorkshire as “a county at war with itself”. For the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, Yorkshire represented a “devolution problem child” (25 November 2015).

Unfolding deals

Uncertainty about different governance architectures and geographies is of more than passing interest. The experience of the Leeds city-region and Yorkshire informs a number of observations about key dilemmas and debates linked to unfolding devolution deals across much of England.

A first observation concerns the role played by party politics and the importance of local consensus. At least part of the friction around competing combined authority proposals is attributable to rivalry between Conservative controlled North Yorkshire County Council and some of its districts, and the predominantly Labour-controlled boroughs that comprise West Yorkshire. The result on occasion has been to pit local against national Conservatives; rumoured central government preference for a devolution deal for the proposed Leeds city-region runs counter to the demands of Tory North Yorkshire.

There is in this sense a very obvious contrast with Greater Manchester, where amicable working relationships and a powerful and pervasive consensus amongst policy elites have suppressed party political rivalry and facilitated a smoother process of policy and institutional innovation.

Yet party politics provide only part of the explanation for faltering efforts in Yorkshire to agree devolution deals. A second observation concerns the notion of ‘urban agglomerative growth’ that underpins combined authorities and the Northern Powerhouse concept. This has had important repercussions for the geometry of devolution deals. For local authorities like Hull, indecision about its preferred option for devolved governance reflects uncertainty about where it sits within the Northern Powerhouse. Now seemingly committed to Greater Yorkshire as its first preference or the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding authority (excluding the Leeds city-region) as a fall back, Hull for a time also explored the possibility of a combined authority straddling the Humber – or even the option of joining the West Yorkshire city-region.

Perceived threat

Unease among  the city’s political leaders relates to at least some degree to the perceived threat posed by a national framework for sub-national economic development that prioritises those cities, like Leeds, deemed of sufficient scale and potential to merit enhanced autonomy and increased public investment. Hull is rarely viewed as one them.

Similar concerns are echoed in less urbanised areas. Alongside party politics, they explain part of the disquiet in North Yorkshire and some of its districts about the apparent primacy of the Leeds city-region. As a recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report argues, for counties and smaller urban and rural areas the continuing issue is where – or whether – they can fit within an emerging mosaic of combined authorities driven principally by the needs of large cities.

A third observation relates to the process by which devolution deals are being hatched and the structure of combined authorities determined. The model to date is one of improvised deal making amongst policy luminaries. There is a clear contrast with earlier rounds of local government reform, where representations were heard, data scrutinised and evidence assessed by disinterested eminences grise in the hope that logical governance structures might emerge in due course. Politics of course often interceded, sometimes decisively, but the process was at least intended to be systematic.

Contemporary devolution deals are being hatched in rather different circumstances. A consequence of the relatively hands-off approach negotiated by the current government and its predecessors in respect of city-regions is that, where local conflicts have arisen, they have often been rooted in local political geography.

Shifting boundaries

As the Yorkshire Post has it, recurring disputes about “the geography” have meant that over many years proposals for the Leeds city-region have varied in their spatial coverage. The boundaries adopted for the City Deal agreed with central government in 2012 extended only to the five local authorities of West Yorkshire’s former metropolitan county. By the establishment of the WYCA two years later, the five areas had been joined by York. At other times, though, a more extensive area has been envisioned for the city-region. This has sometimes extended to all ten of the districts comprising Leeds’s Local Enterprise Partnership, and at one point also included Barnsley (now again part of the South Yorkshire combined authority agreed in 2015).

There are some instructive parallels here with other city-regions. After toying with more imaginative spatial configurations around the time of the Northern Way and its city-region development plans in 2004, Greater Manchester reverted to the narrower boundaries of the old metropolitan county. This was a deliberate attempt to maintain consensus and avoid the kind of conflict about “the geography” that could have accompanied a more expansively defined city-region.

Much the same applies to some of the other recently agreed combined authorities for city-regions like Sheffield’s (based on the former metropolitan county) or Liverpool’s (where Halton for many years has operated in effect as Merseyside’s sixth borough). The problem, however, is that although more narrowly delineated city-regions can help to secure workable institutional settlements in the short-term, they can also engender insecurity and resentment amongst those areas excluded.

Recent accounts of devolution deals have often emphasised the divergent experiences of Leeds and Manchester. Both for a time were viewed as pioneers, reflected in their designation in 2009 as the first pilot statutory city-regions. Some observers in Leeds worry that the city-region is being left behind as Manchester capitalises on first-mover advantage, corralling resources and powers as it cements its status as unrivalled capital of the Northern Powerhouse. Parochial, politically rooted arguments around competing governance proposals, they argue, limit the city-region’s ability to keep pace with Manchester and others.

‘Predictable phase’

Yet there is an alternative reading of the experience of Leeds and Yorkshire: one which views conflict not as a facet of failed governance, but as a predictable and perhaps unavoidable phase en route to a stable and durable policy and institutional settlement with wide ranging support.

Part of the reason for Greater Manchester’s success in securing agreement about new institutions and policy initiatives is that relationships were cultivated and consensus constructed painstakingly over several decades – a luxury denied to areas now under pressure to meet Whitehall’s demanding timetable for devolution.

If combined authorities are to be cohesive and devolution deals lasting, there is a need to avoid agonising too much about conflict and instead recognise the importance of patience in constructing governance structures that are appropriate to a diverse range of local circumstances.