The people of East Yorkshire had a particular interest in the chancellor of the exchequer’s autumn statement on Wednesday. As expected, it contained an announcement about a ‘devolution’ settlement to the sub-region.
Devolution for Hull and East Riding
Until recently, there has been no urgency from council leaders in getting a devolution deal done. The lack of urgency has dragged on for several years as the political parties’ understandable reticence for an elected mayor held up progress. Meanwhile, deals have been signed in other parts of Yorkshire (the one in South Yorkshire has been in place since 2018). So, it is good that some sort of deal was finally announced by the chancellor. However, looking at the detail announced on Wednesday, there are some serious questions to be asked.
Firstly, the financial settlement itself. The proposed deal includes a £400mn investment in funding over 30 years. This works out at £13mn a year or the equivalent of 0.5% of the two councils’ current budgets. This is a relatively small sum, in fact, one of the lowest of any combined authority in the country. The question has to be asked, with such small amounts of money, wouldn’t such funding best be funnelled through the existing structures of the local authorities?
Equally, other aspects of the deal are very geographically specific. For example, there is money for a coastal regeneration programme in the East Riding and £5mn for further expansion of the Alexandra Dock in Hull. Again, surely these are best done through the local councils rather than inventing new bureaucracies.
What’s at stake with the devolution deal?
There are many other questions that need answering.
Precisely what autonomy will the combined authority have in carrying out the new powers and responsibilities? Which of those mentioned in the statement (such as shaping local skills provision and driving regeneration) will be carried out autonomously and which will be in conjunction with the relevant government department? Where does a ‘green economy’ fit into these proposals? Does housing strategy now pass from the local authorities to the combined authority (the deal doesn’t appear to mention this)?
How will it be funded? The proposal stipulates that the mayor will be able to levy a council tax precept and a supplementary business rate of they choose too – will this be used merely to fund their offices, or will it be used for wider projects?
How will the mayor be accountable to the wider public? Will the meetings of the new authority with the mayor be open to the public and/or will the minutes be published? Will the public be able to ask questions at the meetings and/or present petitions? (The apparent lack of accountability in Teesside, highlighted by North East Bylines previously, should be a warning to us all).
What happens to the Humberside police and crime commissioner (PCC)? Will one still need to be elected? In West Yorkshire the deputy mayor has taken over the role of PCC, whereas in South Yorkshire the PCC role will soon sit with the mayor. It’s an important question, because Humberside police area covers both sides of the Humber estuary, but the new combined authority will only cover the area north of the Humber.
Will the mayor have any responsibility for the Humber freeport or at least sit on the board? The proposed deal doesn’t mention this. Again, accountability will be very important if they do. And can the new authority scrap the bridge tolls, or will that remain a matter for the Humber Bridge Board and the government?
What happens to the green belt between Hull and the East Riding?
What will the name of the new combined authority be? Where will the mayor’s offices be based? Will staffing costs come from the mayor’s agreed budget?
Should there be a double lock on the mayoral vote, so not only does the winning candidate win a majority of votes overall, they win the most votes in each of the two local authorities too.
Democratic engagement: calls for a citizens’ assembly
This very modest form of devolution (more appropriately perhaps the term should be ‘economic decentralisation’) is not the Green Party’s preferred option when it comes to greater powers to the region. We would prefer a Yorkshire-wide assembly or parliament and all the heft that a strategic body representing five million people would bring with it.
Above all though, there has to be some sort of citizens’ engagement in the process. This procedure, in every case where a combined authority has been set up, has been a series of behind-closed-doors meetings between ministers and local authority leaders. The public have been excluded. Such a lack of engagement is reflected in the notoriously low turnouts in the mayoral elections that have taken place already.
As a minimum, a series of public meetings, hosted by the council leaders should be held to answer the many questions the public will have. Local Greens would go further. Given the huge impact on our communities, we want a citizens’ assembly set up, with people drawn, broadly representatively, from both Hull and the East Riding local authority areas, to deliberate and to make an informed recommendation on how this devolution should happen.
It is a pity that, after waiting so long for some movement on devolution to Hull and the East Riding, we end up with such a pitiable deal on so many levels. The local council leaders can’t be blamed fully. After all, any additional funding, when their budgets are so stretched, will inevitably be met enthusiastically. However, the public can now urge for more democratic accountability and transparency, the protection of public services and the promotion of a green economy and turn this into a devolution settlement of which we can be proud.