Author Mark Richards

The well-documented dispute in Catalonia has brought the issue of local and regional governments to everyone’s attention. But it is not just Europe: there are increasing moves for more directly accountable local government at home, typified by demands for a directly elected mayor for Yorkshire. Could ‘God’s own county’ become God’s own country?

What do you know about Yorkshire?

Aye – ‘appen people can be a bit blunt. Yep, it’s big. More acres in Yorkshire than words in t’bible tha’ knows. And they make puddings and Pontefract cakes and it is the home of the famous Rhubarb Triangle.

Flat caps, whippets, Geoffrey Boycott… You could trot out Yorkshire clichés all afternoon.

But did you also know that Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland? That its gross domestic product is twice that of the whole of Wales? And yet it has the powers of neither.

Yorkshire’s GDP – roughly £120bn – is equal to that of the Ukraine and bigger than 11 EU countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Luxembourg. Leeds is the largest legal and financial centre outside London – its financial and insurance industry is worth £2.1bn a year. Sheffield has an economy equal to that of Ghana. On the sporting field, Yorkshire gained more medals at the Rio Olympics than Canada.

Liverpool, Manchester and Teesside have directly elected mayors. To use the colloquial term, self-rule for Yorkshire is a ‘no-brainer.’ The only question is who is going to be the county’s first mayor? Ed Balls for Labour or William Hague for the Conservatives?

People want local government

It is not just Yorkshire and Catalonia. People want to be governed by areas that they relate to – Wiki lists no less than 26 countries in Europe with distinct separatist movements, from Finland in the north (the Aland Swedes want to set up the state of Aland) to Italy in the south, where both Sardinia and Sicily want to be independent. Despite the country being an economic basket case, surprisingly there are no demands for independence from Greece…

What about the UK? As well as Scotland and Wales there are demands for independence from Cornwall, Wessex, the Orkneys, Shetland and the ‘People of the Outer Hebrides.’

I think we can say that an independent Outer Hebrides is probably not viable, but what about Wessex? You may dimly remember it from a school history lessons, an Anglo Saxon kingdom in the south of England. Today it would take in the area from Kent to Dorset (and arguably some of London). Economically viable? Most definitely. The area would have a far higher GDP than many EU member states.

What is a directly elected mayor?

By US Embassy London [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe person exercising ultimate executive power in Yorkshire – and in many other authorities around the UK – will be a directly elected mayor. Having declined in importance over the years, the

position of Lord Mayor was – until recently – a largely ceremonial one: the chance to wear nice robes, be chauffeured around in the mayor’s car and due reward for 20 years’ loyal service on the council as you opened yet another school garden party. All that changed with the election of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London in May 2000, a position he held until 2008 when he was defeated by Boris Johnson. The current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was elected in May of last year.

Directly elected mayors like this are executive leaders, exercising power with the help of an appointed cabinet – and there are now 23 of them in England. As well as London, large local authorities like Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands have directly elected mayors.

Are local mayors a good idea?

There are a handful of well-rehearsed arguments in favour of local mayors (and they probably also apply to devolved assemblies like Scotland and Wales as well). In theory:

  • Directly elected mayors are more responsible to the electorate: they are more legitimate and accountable than mayors appointed under the old ‘Buggins’ turn’ system
  • They are meant to represent the return of ‘personality’ to the local political system – thereby engaging more people with the political process
  • A mayor is in power for four years – long enough to become an expert and allowing him or her to make tough decisions, for which he is later held to account
  • And, of course, a mayor is a figurehead, helping to attract inward investment into the region. Ed Balls or William Hague, so the argument goes, would be a far more effective advocate for Yorkshire with a foreign business owner than, say, the head of the regeneration department at the local council.

But not everyone agrees…

For every argument, there is a counter-argument…

  • Critics would say that it is very difficult to claim legitimacy and accountability when so many mayors are elected on such small turnouts. Conservative Ben Houchen was elected Tees Valley mayor on a turnout of just 21%. Labour’s Steve Rotherham became mayor of Liverpool City Region on a turnout of just 26%.
  • And with so many mayoral contests effectively being safe seats, the mayor is decided not by the electorate but by party officials, with failed Westminster politicians simply re-inventing themselves as local mayors
  • Cost is also a big criticism. Unless other governance – local and county councils, for example – is dismantled all that a local mayor does is add another layer of cost and bureaucracy to an already creaking system. With central government constantly warning of cuts, perhaps the real answer is not that Yorkshire does not have enough government, but that Scotland, Wales, Liverpool and London have too much.
  • And being a local mayor – especially of a major city – is a very high profile position. Could it be that the position attracts people who are more interested in promoting themselves and their future careers than in providing services? No, that is a ridiculous suggestion…

Let me finish by returning to the mayoral elections in England and the four-year term a mayor (supposedly) enjoys. In 2015 Conservative Gordon Oliver was elected as mayor of Torbay. Currently, this is the only mayoralty in the UK for which Wikipedia does not list a date for a future election. Maybe Torquay and the surrounding area has already declared independence and no-one noticed…?