Stewart Arnold Speech to the Party Annual Conference

“Devolution is happening – it’s back on the agenda and we are on the cusp of a One Yorkshire devolution deal with all the advantages that go with that. Unimaginable even three years ago.”

York 7th October 2017

It’s not long ago since I spoke to you in Bridlington but it’s interesting how things do move quickly.

Back in July when we met by the seaside a solution to the devolution logjam we found ourselves in looked a long way off.

Back then local councils seemed to be unwilling to entertain anything other than the divisive, limited undemocratic concept of City Regions.

Yet within a couple of weeks, 17 of the 20 local council leaders in Yorkshire had signed up to a proposal for a single or One Yorkshire settlement.

You can give yourselves a collective pat on the back for getting us this far. Your work as members, supporters, candidates and voters has helped shift opinion massively.

By putting leaflets through letterboxes, discussing with people at street stalls, attending hustings meetings, asking pertinent questions of our leaders, writing letters and generally being a nuisance, you have got us to a point which seemed unlikely just a few months ago.

But there is no resting up here. We are only on stage two of the campaign.

Back in 2014 when we first set up the party devolution to Yorkshire was hardly being discussed at all.

In fact it had dropped off the political agenda since the ill fate referendum for a North East assembly set up by the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ten years earlier.

Yet the rationale behind John Prescott’s plans were as pertinent as ever in 2014 as they had been in 2004. In the White Paper he talked about an over centralised state, a democratic deficit, a need to revitalise the regions in a UK economy that was out of kilter, the opportunity to set different priorities and so on.

The White paper says:

“By taking powers from Whitehall and Government quangos, regional assemblies will bring decision-making under closer democratic control – offering people in the region a distinct political voice and a real say over decisions which matter to them, on issues such as jobs, transport, housing, culture and the environment.”

So the North East referendum killed the devolution idea. At least in practice but in actual fact things just got worse. The economic recession of 2007 exacerbated the already crippling north-south divide.

I remember a comment by Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England in about 2014 when he said we needed to be careful because there was a danger of London overheating as it came out of recession – we needed to slow things down! Well of course most in Yorkshire still don’t feel much better off even now.

And by 2014 we already started to see the benefits of other parts of the UK. Scotland, Wales and London setting their own priorities, tackling their own problems and unleashing their potential.

So by 2014 it seemed a good time to start talking about devolution again. And over the next couple of years – with your help – the idea went from fringe to mainstream.

So devolution is happening – it’s back on the agenda and we are on the cusp of a One Yorkshire devolution deal with all the advantages that go with that. Unimaginable even three years ago.

But as I said this is only stage two.

Firstly, we have to make sure there is no backsliding from the One Yorkshire vision.

Secondly, we also have to bring all Yorkshire Councils into the fold (this means pressure on Sheffield, Rotherham and Wakefield) so providing a united front when it comes to negotiating with the Government.

In turn, we too have to demonstrate to the Government that the One Yorkshire solution is popular and the best way forward for Yorkshire. We are not alone in this because as you will hear from Nasser Malik from the Yorkshire Enterprise Network this afternoon business is behind it. So are the trade unions. And business and trade unions are not always on the same page but they are on this.

Let’s make no mistake though. The collapse of the Sheffield City Region is an embarrassment to the Government and they seem determined to prop up the corpse at its own funeral in some bizarre ritual.

So we get bullying from Communities Minister Sajid Javid. All along he wanted Yorkshire to come back with a  devolution settlement of its own. A bottom up approach he called it. So we delivered a bottom up approach. A One Yorkshire settlement. Ah he said but that wasn’t the bottom up approach I wanted. Clearly he wanted a top down bottom up approach. Confused? I know I am!

We know Governments will give up power only reluctantly. We see that in places like Catalonia, Kurdistan and even the UK. We will have to campaign hard for those real meaningful powers which will make a difference to people’s lives.

And that’s something we can learn from the referendum campaign in 2004. I was involved in the Campaign for Yorkshire and naturally we looked on with interest what was going on across the way in the North east.

In the end, the vote in the North east assembly was 78% against and 22% in favour. The charge has been ever since that referendum showed there is no appetite for regional assemblies in England. (Yorkshire of course didn’t have its referendum although promised although I am not sure the result could have been a  lot different)

Perhaps the surprising thing about the  referendum in the North East is not that only 22% voted in favour but that as many as 22% voted in favour given what was on offer.

John Prescott tells a story, possibly apocryphal, that at a cabinet meeting he went round all his colleagues sat at the table, pointed at them and asked which powers is your department giving up to the new regional assemblies. There was an avoidance of eye contact, a shuffling of papers and John Prescott came away with very little.

The proposed assembly had very little in the way of powers: a bit of skills training, bus management, some local economic management – all worthy in themselves but together hardly added up to a row of beans. So that should be warning to us. We need to stake a claim for everything possible: housing, energy, education, environment, health, tax raising powers  to name but a few. We’ll let London keep macro-economic policy, foreign policy, defence and – yes – stamp design. The rest comes to us. Because if we don’t aim big then frankly the people won’t believe it can make a difference.

And the same goes for the structure too.

Quite simply, we want an accountable, transparent assembly or parliament elected by a fair voting system. We want any future body to reflect the diversity of Yorkshire, its politics and its people, in the same way that when the Scottish Parliament was first elected seven different parties were represented there or in the Welsh Assembly where 42% of the members are women – one of the highest proportions of any legislature in the world.

I want a body that is serious in its work with strong  committee so that every member can play a full part.  There would certainly be no need for a second chamber  and I don’t want any dual roles so no splitting time between Yorkshire and Westminster.  Members would be full time serving the constituents that elected them.

As a quick way to get elected representatives, I am suggesting an electoral system based on existing Westminster seats in Yorkshire of first past the post plus a top up of seats by way of fair representation and to represent the political diversity I mentioned.

The voting system could be reviewed but as with boundaries and local government reform, we should not get bogged down in an argument about best systems at this stage.

What else? Should there be a weighting for more rural areas? Possibly.

Also, I would like a system to allow for more independent and non-party political voices. So for example there could be a provision for 10 or so Members drawn by lots in the same way we draw up juries.

We would scrap Police and Crime Commissioners (saving around £4m per annum) and possibly establish a single Yorkshire Police Force reporting to the Yorkshire assembly. 

Which leads me to another thing we must decide. Parliament or assembly?

I am relaxed about either term to be honest but I can see we need to have some certainty. For example, in a 10 second news clip it’s not possible to use both terms – so for that reason alone we need to decide! 

Assembly sounds like a poor version of a parliament and reminds me at least of the old Yorkshire & Humber Assembly, which amounted to nothing more than a talking shop amongst Council leaders.

Parliament suggests to me something much more significant. However, there is almost no chance that this would be granted to Yorkshire (Wales can’t get their assembly called a Parliament after all) So do we keep the aspiration in the knowledge we are not going to get this or do we accept the term Assembly? As I said, I am honestly relaxed. But we need decide.

And where? And here I am less relaxed.

Firstly, it must be a single site. I know some might be in favour of making the proceedings into a road show and touring the county but I think scuttling between council buildings across Yorkshire gives a totally wrong impression.

It could be that meetings of the committees taking place in different parts of Yorkshire (for example it would be great if the Agriculture Committee could meet somewhere like Hawes or Muker or the Arts committee met at the Hepworth) but there must be a single building for the main proceedings.

So a single building. I have come down on the side of a new build. I would much prefer a purpose-built building. Using the best of Yorkshire in design, materials, fitting out and so on. Modern, accessible, open, transparent, iconic almost. Something which the people can look on proudly. With a Henry Moore in the lobby and a Hockney behind the Speakers Chair. On loan, of course, no need to spend owt!

So where should it go? I have to say I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years and it all comes back to one place: York. It is the traditional capital, it is the city which rest of the county is named after, it has served as a hugely significant seat of commerce and power since Roman times, was the home of the Council of the North in the Middle Ages and it’s not Leeds.

Also, it is reasonably central geographically. I also think it would do a lot for York’s economy which having lost its huge manufacturing base has tourism and little else. I think it needs something new: a centre for democracy.

I have something in mind for a specific location and I am happy to share  a site visit with you some time but that’s for another day.

Why is all this discussion important now when you have heard me say many times in the part it’s not about structures, it’s about what we can do with devolution?

Well, just now it is about structures. Because if we don’t make the case for an accountable, transparent assembly or parliament elected by a fair voting system then we’ll get something else: something undemocratic,  something old school, something that’ll turn the clock back.

We turn a  new page. We have a chance to revitalise our democracy in Yorkshire but there is every danger it would be the same old council leaders who have spent the best part of two years squabbling with each other running the show.

Or it will be an elected Mayor.

Now I could just about live with an elected Mayor for the whole of Yorkshire accountable to a directly elected assembly. In other words a sort of London model but only if it was on the way to something else. I want what they have in Scotland and Wales – tried and tested first rate devolution.

To me an elected Mayor reporting to a cabinet of council leaders (which is proposed) is just old style boss politics. It’ll be a carve up between the two main parties. It won’t reflect new progressive politics. Elected Mayors have already been rejected in many parts of Yorkshire in referendums just a few years ago. An elected Mayor just won’t engage people and it will undervalue devolution and potentially set us back years.

And it won’t engage people. A simple statistic: barely one if four people voted in the Manchester Mayoral election in May and this despite all the fanfare about the novelty of it and having an ex Labour leadership contender as a candidate.  Contrast that with the turnout for the last Scottish parliament elections which was close to 60%.

Someone from the south said to me recently that Yorkshire people are always moaning aren’t they!

I was surprised, because I actually thought Yorkshire people didn’t  moan much at all.

But actually even if he was right and Yorkshire people did moan,  they would have every right to moan. After all within a  generation, the main staples of the Yorkshire economy, coal, steel textiles and fishing were swept away. The people were then thrown into the maelstrom of a liberalised global trade without anywhere near the levels of investment in education and skills and in infrastructure to allow us to fully compete.

A sense of grievance is entirely justified in my view – whether that’s moaning or not. It cuts across the sense of what Yorkshire people consider to be fair.

– It’s not fair that having cancelled electrification of the mainline to Sheffield and the Transpennine route to Manchester, Chris Grayling gets all misty eyed about Cross rail2 a project –  in London – costing £30bn;

– It’s not fair when the last few remaining collieries in Yorkshire are shut down as part of a drive towards a fossil free future and then London says we have to open up our countryside for fracking;

– It’s not fair when school kids in London get twice as much spent on them per head than kids in York

– It’s not fair when the brightest and the best from Yorkshire’s universities have to migrate to London to get well paid jobs

So, yes there is a sense of grievance. But that is not all we are about – certainly not in the Yorkshire Party.

We continue to set out what we want a modern, progressive, prosperous Yorkshire to look like.

We will listen to businesses in the region, to those working in educational  and health & social services, to environmental groups and others. We want to hear what they have to say when it comes to mapping out Yorkshire’s future. Part of that process is the invitation we have extended to Nasser Malik.

I mentioned in Bridlington the sort of things we want to do:

  • Set up a Yorkshire educational challenge, based on the London Challenge, to provide investment, professional development and share best practice across Yorkshire
  • Support for infrastructure investment through a Yorkshire finance trust
  • Put a ban on fracking and instead develop an innovative energy policy where renewables play a  key part
  • Allow free wifi to every household and set up  a ‘Made in Yorkshire’ label

Amongst others…

I want us to tackle the future with boldness and imagination.

One of our members, Dylan Thwaites, had a piece in the Yorkshire Post yesterday and he wrote poignantly:

Yorkshire is a county of innovators like Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Jet2, Plusnet, Clipper, and First Direct. A county of gritty go-getters like Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams and the Brownlee brothers. Our future should be as a welcoming Yorkshire, rich in shared heritage and keen to adapt and adopt new ideas. 

When the Yorkshire Assembly comes into place I will have great pleasure in leading a Yorkshire Party group – made up of many of you – in building a prosperous democratic Yorkshire, adapting and adopting new ideas.

Three years ago that would have seemed fanciful. As I said, the mere idea of devolution to Yorkshire was fanciful. We can reflect on how far we have come  and how far the party has advanced. It gives me huge optimism for the Yorkshire Party and this incredible region.

I must confess I have a secret. Many of you know it. I am not Yorkshire born and bred. I have only lived in Yorkshire for about 30 years. But I can tell you that as an outsider it was immediately obvious when first moving here what we have here but that we should be making more of it. I don’t call that moaning or even boasting.

I cal that pride laced with the knowledge that things could be better still.

It’s a reflection of the history, heritage and the diversity of the people, the economy and landscape of Yorkshire sadly let down let down by politicians of all parties over the past couple of generations.

Things are changing though. Yorkshire is finding its voice.

With your help we’ll make sure that voice is heard.

Thank you!

Stewart Arnold, Yorkshire Party Leader, 7th October 2017

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