Chris Leslie, Director
We live in interesting times, and this is certainly true for Doncaster MP Caroline Flint who last week was handed the auspicious job of ‘Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber’ by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. A newly created post, our Regional Minister will have wide ranging responsibilities, batting for Yorkshire in the Cabinet Committees and departmental forums where the big decisions take place.
What advice would I give to Caroline? There are great strengths and opportunities facing Yorkshire, but some threats and problems too. Luckily for her, this region has a pretty coherent and strong identity, with the character to articulate quite forcefully the priorities it wants to see. The flood damage afflicting thousands across the region in recent weeks illustrates precisely where public policy cuts across local authority boundaries, but where a strong and rapid regional emergency response was required. A Regional Minister should be where the buck stops, where residents and the media can direct their opinions and questions, and should give us an ally in the fight for new road and rail investment and resourcing for affordable housing.
Yorkshire’s new Minister also has a few tricky issues piling up in her in-tray. With London continuing to boom and act as the centre of gravity in the UK economy, how can Yorkshire stay ahead of the game, improve it’s specialist commercial appeal, and not see it’s brightest talents drawn down to the capital? Is the region winning it’s fair share of infrastructure monies when compared to other parts of the country? Are our local authorities and other regional bodies working together well enough to ensure high quality and joined-up services?
Gordon Brown’s first statement to the House of Commons was on what some regard as the dry topic of constitutional reform, including improving regional leadership and accountability. It is easy to deride politicians who get embroiled in constitutional detail, but if we can improve the way we are governed and rejuvenate our democracy, then I believe that we will get better decisions on schools, hospitals, criminal justice and job creation. Constitutional reform is, therefore, a means to broader policy ‘ends’. But it should also be about giving people a stronger sense of belonging, rekindling the belief that we can influence our politicians, and that they are accountable to the voters.
Whitehall still has too much grip over policy decisions that could be better delegated to local level, with elected community representatives far better placed to know how to tailor services and choose priorities than civil servants hundreds of miles away. While Gordon Brown has talked this week in general terms about ‘empowering communities’ and a ‘new concordat between central and local government’, this will only become significant if serious financial changes are also part of the equation. If the imbalance of power between ‘local’ and ‘national’ continues where the former has to always bid for money from the latter, then we will stifle the local ingenuity and creativity that could make all the difference. Taxpayers’ money is generated in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull – yet most travels through Treasury coffers in London before being redistributed locally again by Ministers. It would be far more grown-up if central government allowed some of this locally-generated money to stay in the region, acting as a more direct incentive for our council leaders and chief executives to create the conditions for jobs and investment, and thereby create more taxpaying employees, more businesses contributing business rates. We cannot continue with a process where Yorkshire’s leaders go cap-in-hand to Whitehall in order to get things done. If there is growth and prosperity generated in Yorkshire, let’s allow some of those fruits of success to stay within the region.
There has been some very sturdy and impressive work by Yorkshire Forward and other regional players in recent years to entice new investment. The new Regional Minister will need to ensure she is adding value to the regional economic strategy already being pursued. How best to ensure Caroline Flint is held accountable in this new post? Gordon Brown is starting to consult on the idea of a Yorkshire Select Committee in the House of Commons, alongside a Yorkshire Question Time too, where local MPs can press home their priorities tailored to the context of the region. My preference would be for these local MPs to be joined simultaneously by some of our council leaders too on such a Yorkshire Committee, so that the twin ‘poles’ of local and national governance come to work together more effectively.
So Caroline Flint has her work well and truly cut out. Maybe asking her to solve the north-south divide in one-fell-swoop is a bit much, but she will need to show leadership, and hopefully in a way that brings Yorkshire’s other key figures along with her.