What would it mean if we had a devolved parliament in Yorkshire?
14 September, 2016
I noticed the above question in a circular the other day so I thought I would try to answer it. The question sounds simple enough but the answer is anything but. There are so many variables involved. How would the parliament be constituted? What powers would it have? How would its activities be financed? What would be its political make up? In order to answer this question, I would have to make all sorts of assumptions which leads me to think, does the asker understand what he is asking or is this, indeed, the right question?
So let’s make a few assumptions and see how far we get. Let us say that a Yorkshire parliament might have fairly wide ranging powers in the areas of health and welfare, education and local authority oversight; just to cite a few topics for example purposes. Let us also assume that the parliament has sufficient powers to finance these activities. Firstly, there might be a greater choice of how it could go about delivering services. It could have access to a range of financial options not currently available. It might not be constrained by Westminster regulations. This could be a good thing in that the parliament might have more freedom of choice but there could be downsides if the standards the parliament laid down were not properly defined. The parliament could thus choose to deliver a range of services that might not have been delivered by the Westminster government. It could provide more money for targeted areas in education, it could provide more money for better health services, it could choose to invest more heavily in transport infrastructure, for example, the electrification of the railways, it could choose to invest more in social housing, or it could choose to do none of these things. It would have to decide on service priorities, given its own financial constraints, so it may decide that it cannot afford to spend heavily on education if it is to preserve the integrity of the current level of health service provision.
The theory of a Yorkshire parliament is that it could tailor its activities to suit prevailing regional needs which could be very different from national requirements. The second big advantage is that it would be answerable to the Yorkshire people. A third advantage is that some services are best delivered at a regional level, certainly in terms of cost effectiveness. All these advantages, however, can only be realised if the variables mentioned in the first paragraph are optimised for the operation of the Yorkshire parliament and this is by no means a done deal.
A Yorkshire parliament could not deliver significant benefits if it had insufficient powers to do so. It could not deliver if it were so financially constrained that it was unable to fulfil its laid down responsibilities. It would not be able to deliver if its political make up was simply a mirror of Westminster which took no account of local needs. I think this last scenario is highly unlikely as most local politicians are aware of local requirements and would hopefully act in the best interests of the region if they were provided with the means to do so, especially as they would be accountable to their electorate. This raises the interesting possibility of a regional administration overriding the wishes of a national administration of the same party, assuming that the regional administration had the powers to do this where regional issues were concerned.
So a Yorkshire parliament could only be effective in delivering real benefits if it had the ability and the will to do so. I think we are perhaps looking at this whole issue from the wrong angle. Westminster institutions have not exactly acted in the best interests of Yorkshire over a considerable period of time so why trust them now with devolution? Maybe we should stop thinking in terms of devolution and start thinking in terms of self-determination. A constitutional convention might be the way forward but we should start from the ground up. In terms of Yorkshire, we need to decide what local government at various levels, should be responsible for, what the Yorkshire administration should be responsible for and what, if any, powers should be surrendered to higher or supra-national authorities.
An issue that we should not forget is that a Yorkshire parliament with sufficient authority to run the county is no easy way out. It might be self-financing but hard choices would have to be made. Just because the Westminster government lives way beyond its means does not mean that Yorkshire would be in a position to do the same. Authority comes with responsibility and accountability. It is not necessarily clear that those calling for a Yorkshire parliament understand this. Calls for powers like Scotland presumably assume that Yorkshire would receive a similar favourable financial settlement which would be unlikely. On the other hand, a constitutional convention might mean that the whole issue of taxation could be thrown wide open.
So, I believe that “what would it mean if we had a devolved parliament in Yorkshire?” is the wrong question. Maybe the question should be “what would it mean if we had effective self-government for Yorkshire?” We can start to answer that question without the problem of variables and a key part of the answer that we already know at this stage is “a lot of hard work for those involved”.
This article fails to take account of the impact that just having a Yorkshire parliament might have. Yorkshire would have a central administration and a focal point which could foster Yorkshire identity and the Yorkshire brand. It could encourage Yorkshire people onwards to greater things and a physical building could act as a symbol of Yorkshire achievement. For Yorkshire it could symbolise the beginning of a new era. Don't underestimate its significance!