Ministers urged to push on with devolution in North Yorkshire and avoid 'Covid-19 paralysis'

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Ministers have been urged to press on with North Yorkshire’s under-threat devolution proposals as business leaders said a transfer of powers was essential for rebuilding the economy after coronavirus.

Doubt was cast on the bid for North Yorkshire last week amid speculation a combination of the pandemic and Brexit negotiations had led the Government to consider shelving plans of local government reorganisation, one of the cornerstones of new funding being handed to the region.

But as a meeting is due to take place this week between Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick, business leaders warned against a “Covid-19 paralysis”.

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Meanwhile district council leaders said devolution should go ahead without local government reorganisation.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who is expected to meet with the Prime Minister and Chancellor this week. Photo: PACommunities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who is expected to meet with the Prime Minister and Chancellor this week. Photo: PA
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who is expected to meet with the Prime Minister and Chancellor this week. Photo: PA

Andrew Digwood, president of the York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said: “If rumours are true that proposals for devolution could be delayed, whether this is due to lack of ministerial bandwidth or for other reasons, then this would be extremely disappointing.

“The whole purpose of devolution is to allow more localised decision making by those who are closest to the regional economy, allowing some of the inherent barriers to growth and prosperity to finally be addressed in a meaningful way. This would free up time for Ministers to focus on national issues.”

A top-level meeting over the issue was due last week but was delayed as the Prime Minister announced new coronavirus restrictions, and the Chancellor a new financial support package.

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Mr Digwood said: “If York and North Yorkshire businesses and the region’s economy are to play the fullest possible role in turning our national economy around after Covid-19, in keeping us economically engaged globally after Brexit as well as in other national economic objectives such as delivering a lower-carbon economy, then a rapid delivery of devolution to the region is essential.

“We call on the Government to deliver on its promises and support a devolution proposal that can achieve all this with minimal disruption to existing structures and maximum impact for the region’s economy.”

Propositions on how to deliver local government reform prior to any future deal were due to be put to government in coming weeks, with North Yorkshire County Council preferring a single unitary option, while district council leaders had proposed splitting North Yorkshire into two unitary councils.

Bryn Sage, chief executive of Harrogate-based Inhealthcare, a leading UK digital health firm, added: “We cannot allow Covid-19 paralysis to hold up this process. When we enter the recovery phase, we will need these powers to unleash North Yorkshire’s potential and create high-value jobs in growth sectors such as remote care technology, bio-economy, manufacturing and UK tourism.”

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While the founder of a North Yorkshire brewery has stressed that now is not the time to stick with the “status quo” in local government structures.

Nick Stafford, founder and chairman of Hambleton Brewery, said: “This new world we are in is a massive opportunity to clear out what does not work and bring in what we need for the future - just like any business. Those living in North Yorkshire are relying on innovation and pragmatism by our political leaders for their prosperity.”

Mr Stafford added: “The existence of rumours the Government can’t handle the process of devolution at the moment proves the urgency to delegate the planning of our future to local leaders.”

Meanwhile the leaders of borough and district councils in North Yorkshire have urged the Government to allow devolution to go ahead without the need to shake-up local authorities.

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The leaders of the seven district councils have now asked the Prime Minister to shelve plans to focus on fighting coronavirus, while allowing devolution to go ahead with existing structures.

On behalf of the councils, leader of Hambleton District Council Mark Robson said: “There is no doubt the Covid-19 situation has worsened nationwide and this will inevitably put extra pressure and new demands on district and borough councils to further support our communities and businesses as we work through this crisis together.

“Let me be clear, this critical responsibility must come first, and we must not be distracted by an unnecessary, resource-intensive and ill-timed local government reorganisation.

“The letter we have sent makes this point in the strongest possible terms and we look forward to the Government response with what we hope is a sensible and realistic way forward for North Yorkshire in these difficult times.”

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It comes as Tees Valley metro mayor Ben Houchen said that devolution and local government reorganisation should be separate discussions.

The Government said earlier this year that a prerequisite of any new devolution deals would be a move to a unitary structure, where one council looks after all services in one region, rather than these being split between county and district authorities.

But speaking to Pod’s Own Country, The Yorkshire Post’s political podcast, Conservative Mr Houchen said: “What has also gone into the mix of the North Yorkshire deal is local council reorganisation, which I think is the separate conversation, but is actually being convoluted into the same conversation.”

He said trying to do the reorganisation at the same time meant local leaders could not agree on a way forward, throwing the whole devolution deal into peril.

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He added: “It allows people legitimate reasons for saying, ‘well, that’s not the right answer’ because you’re not simplifying the decision.

“And that then leads to lots of different outcomes, which means there is no submission to Government because they can’t agree on a way forward, which would be unfortunate for the people of North Yorkshire.”

MPs are due to probe the purpose of devolution deals signed between Government and areas such as Yorkshire in a new inquiry.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has launched the inquiry to look into English devolution, and what it called an “asymmetry in governance arrangements in the UK” following the handing over of powers in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

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The Commons committee said that since 2014, there have been several devolution initiatives in England, and 10 metro mayors with bespoke deals now exist.

The PACAC Chair, William Wragg, said: “The Government has committed to set out plans for full devolution across England, but what English devolution would and should look like is still unclear.

“My committee will consider the constitutional and political issues surrounding devolution in England in order to scrutinise the Government’s proposals carefully.

“We want to make sure they don’t further complicate governance in England and provide people with a meaningful influence over the governance of their communities and regions.”