The road to the Northern Powerhouse is proving more rocky than originally anticipated. Rows about elected mayors, the boundaries of Combined Authority areas and the complete lack of democracy in setting it all up means the North presents a patchwork of progress and delay ahead of the crucial Autumn Statement.
It looks as if the resistance of St Helens, Wirral and Halton to an elected city region mayor has been overcome and they look set to join Greater Manchester and Sheffield will devolution deals done this month. In Lancashire Wyre Council are holding out against joining a county wide Combined Authority, but it is in Yorkshire that the bitterest row has broken out.
The leader of Kirklees Council, the area around Huddersfield, has accused North Yorkshire Council of “blatant self-interest and gerrymandering”. David Sheard is referring to the proposals for Greater Yorkshire that have been submitted to the government. This is a plan to bring Hull, York and four North Yorkshire districts together. The rival plan brings together West Yorkshire, based around Leeds but including Craven, Harrogate and Selby. North Yorkshire has refused to give over its transport and highways powers in those three districts. This would put a major curb on the transport and infrastructure role of the Leeds based city region.
Apart from the row over boundaries, there is a feeling that there is now less on the table for Leeds than when it was named a frontrunner for devolution in the summer. Envious eyes are being turned to the deal struck by Sheffield with some concluding that the idea of accepting an elected mayor for Leeds City Region with less powers than Sheffield got may not be worth doing.
It needs to be noted that Leeds City Region has already negotiated a growth deal investment fund of £600m, and it has control of the adult skills budget. It wants powers to manage European funding, an infrastructure levy ability and to run the buses, but talks seem to have stalled.
Even in Greater Manchester there is growing discontent with the total lack of public involvement in the Combined Authority deal. A group has been formed, the Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign for Democratic Devolution, and they will be targeting the wards of the ten leaders of Greater Manchester in next May’s elections.
They claim public awareness is low about the deal which is all about business and growth but very little about issues like social housing. They also worry about the accountability of people doing the deals now and how the city region mayor will be held accountable from 2017.
Concern about this issue was expressed at a high level meeting of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) held in Liverpool this week. It concluded that for all the talk of the Northern Powerhouse there was no urban policy to back it up and answer questions about the unsustainable growth of London, how continuing support for the North over many decades was going to be achieved and what was to be the fate of smaller northern towns with little growth prospects.
One of the speakers at the TCPA meeting was Alan Harding from Liverpool University’s Heseltine Institute. He’ll be leaving in January to become economic adviser to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.