The Covid pandemic has highlighted how Combined Authority Mayors like Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester have taken a leadership role in speaking up for their residents and engaging with Ministers. You may have been disappointed by the performance of the hapless Peter Soulsby in Leicester, but I suspect more people in Yorkshire know who he is than are able to identify their local councillor.
I was disappointed that regional political agreement could not be reached for the Yorkshire Post’s concept of a “One Yorkshire” Mayor. I campaigned hard for this with South Yorkshire Labour Mayor, Dan Jarvis. The boundaries would have included the whole of God’s Own County and would have had a combined population bigger than Scotland. The Mayor would have expected to have the ear of the Prime Minister and been able to ensure that we got our fair share of investment in infrastructure projects, for example. When Boris took trade delegations to the USA or Japan, the Yorkshire mayor would have expected to have a ticket on the Prime Ministerial plane.
All is not lost as we now face the exciting prospect of a Mayor for North Yorkshire and York who will also take over the task of Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner. We hope to have elections in 2022.
Having already dispensed with the services of our MEPs – and not shedding many tears over that, it is only sensible that as we introduce a new layer of local representation, with the Mayor, that we should seek to rationalise and make savings at Council level. Except for York, which is already a unitary authority, people in the rest of North Yorkshire have two Councils – three if you include Town or Parish Councils.
My Constituents in Scarborough and Whitby are in both Scarborough Borough and North Yorkshire County. The same applies to people in Ryedale, Hambleton, Selby, Richmondshire, Craven and Harrogate. I regularly get confused about which Council does what! North Yorkshire is the Highways Authority, but Scarborough oversees parking (except for the Park and Ride in Whitby which is the County). Scarborough collects the bins but takes the refuse to North Yorkshire’s Seamer Carr tip.
The situation is further muddied by the fact the many Borough or District Councillors also sit on the County Council.
So, I am clear that we need a Mayor together with Unitary Authorities in North Yorkshire. The big question is where to draw the lines on the map. Which model gives the best value for money but also ensures the voters keep the “local” in local Government?
There are two front runners. The County proposes keeping their current boundary and keeping York in its current, albeit quite small, unitary configuration. They argue that 80% of services are already delivered by the County, that they have economies of scale and perform very well in most fields. Indeed, Education delivered by the County is an exemplar and their Children’s Services achieve outstanding Ofsted scores in all aspects of their work.
In short, they say, if it ain’t broke then don’t try to mend it.
The County also recognises that they cover a very large geographic area and this could be a problem. I suggested early on that one way of addressing this would be to give more powers to Parish and Town Councils and that we should fill in the gaps where these don’t already exist. Scarborough and Harrogate should have their own Town Councils. These local Councils should have devolved powers and be given assets such as car parks to give them income streams.
The County are also proposing to have local committees so that subjects such as planning can be made by representatives with detailed local knowledge.
The Districts have also come up with their own proposal which divides the County into East and West. York, Selby, Ryedale and Scarborough would form one Council with Richmondshire, Hambleton, Craven and Harrogate the other. This would involve much more administrative disruption but does bring decision making closer to the people electing the Councillors. I am also unclear whether York itself is enthusiastic about this proposal. There are certainly concerns in Scarborough that York would become the centre of power.
We also need to decide how big the electoral wards would be and how many Councillors we need. Quality is probably more important the quantity in that regard.
The Communities Secretary will be making a decision this Autumn and like my North Yorkshire MP colleagues, I am in listening mode. North Yorkshire and York have lagged behind other parts of Yorkshire that are already reaping the benefits of funding directed through the new “Metro-Mayors”.
The time for prevarication is over. We need to make the right decision and get on with the job of delivering effective local government for North Yorkshire.
By Rt Hon Robert Goodwill MP