There’s more than a whiff of Miss Havisham about the attempts by council leaders in Hull and East Riding to secure a devolution deal with the government.
Like Dickens’ jilted bride still wearing her wedding dress while surrounded by stopped clocks in her crumbling mansion, time has stood still in a certain corner of Yorkshire while others elsewhere have made it to the altar.
South and West Yorkshire already have their mayor-led combined authorities while the nuptials for the first mayoral contest in North Yorkshire will happen in May next year.
Back in East Yorkshire, however, even the prospect of securing a deal to pave the way for devolved funding and decision-making seems as far off as ever.
To understand why requires the telling of a twisting plot worthy of Dickens at his best.
An uneasy courtship
When the prospect of an unlikely shotgun marriage between every council in Yorkshire fell apart, Hull and the East Riding tried to woo their neighbours across the Humber to join them in devolved matrimony.
However, the lure of a Greater Lincolnshire and deep suspicion and even outright dislike of Labour-run Hull ingrained since the far off days of Humberside County Council led council leaders in Grimsby and Scunthorpe to reject their advances.
Not even the Humber Bridge has ever really overcome this historic divide across the estuary and the rift left Hull and the East Riding standing on their own like a nervous couple on a first date.
Relations between two councils now abandoned to face their own potential combined fate have never been exactly smooth.
A city without a suburb
Given a map of the region and asked to identify the boundary between the two council areas, an outsider would almost certainly include the suburbs to the west of Hull as being a natural part of the city. They would be wrong.
Successive local government reorganisations have left Hull with an usually tight boundary for a city and with virtually no traditional middle-class suburbs as you might see in York or Leeds. In some places, the border actually runs right through the middle of residential streets.
Over the years, this arrangement has invariably skewed data used in performance league tables covering everything from school exam results to life expectancy. Sadly, it’s also encouraged a long-standing snobbery among some and bitter grievance among others.
Back in 2014 the Conservative-led East Riding added fuel to this particular fire by staging a bizarre referendum asking residents living near Hull whether they supported an extension of the city boundary. Naturally, 96.5% voted against a Hull takeover even though Hull had not even proposed such a move.
The stunt was seen by some as an attempt by the then-Tory group leadership on the East Riding to reassert itself after a previous failed internal coup. A template for the Brexit vote? Perhaps.
Despite no sign of any subsequent invasion by Hull, the antagonism between the two simmers on just beneath the surface and occasionally still erupts in public.
Enter the Boundary Commission
During the campaign ahead of this month’s council elections, East Riding Tories in one of the wards bordering Hull were once again warning of attempts by the city to muscle its way over the border – not only had Hull lodged bids to allocate land it owned within the ward for potential future housing but the Boundary Commission was also proposing to move the ward into the Hull North parliamentary constituency.
You can almost imagine the pitchforks and burning torches being prepared for battle.
The elections have seemingly provided another excuse to delay a decision on the joint Hull and East Riding devolution bid which was quietly agreed between the two councils two years ago without any public consultation. Wary of a public backlash at the thought of a cross-border union, this low-key approach is underlined by the fact that neither council currently favours a directly elected mayor and have instead opted to support a so-called county deal model with the leadership of any combined authority rotating between the two councils.
Local elections: changing the calculus?
This wariness reflected the local political landscape going into this month’s elections where the Liberal Democrats increased their majority in Hull while the ruling East Riding Tory group lost seats – rendering the council with no overall control. It remains to be seen whether either can muster anything other than lukewarm enthusiasm for tying the knot.
As the would-be matchmaker in all this, Michael Gove doesn’t seem to be in a rush either. In February last year he named Hull and East Riding as one of nine areas where devolution deals would be fast-tracked as part of the government’s levelling up white paper.
As yet, everything remains in limbo amid reports of a ‘lack of capacity’ in Whitehall to actually get the Hull and East Riding deal over the line.
Perhaps something might happen sometime. Not exactly great expectations.