'A deal that's not ideal': Wakefield councillors back West Yorkshire devolution despite leader's admission it's not perfect

Councillors in Wakefield have given their formal blessing to an elected West Yorkshire mayor, removing one of the few remaining hurdles to the region's devolution deal.

Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 12:30 pm
West Yorkshire leaders negotiated a devolution deal with Chancellor Rishi Sunak earlier this year.

Westminster will hand £1.8bn in funding to West Yorkshire over the next 30 years, on the condition that the region agree to the creation of a mayor to oversee areas such as public transport, housing and skills.

But despite Labour and the Conservatives in Wakefield backing the agreement, it has been revealed that only 492 voters in the district took part in the public consultation that ran on the issue this summer.

Of those that did, more were strongly opposed to the deal than strongly in favour, though across West Yorkshire as a whole there was more support for the agreement than opposition.

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Council leader Denise Jeffery warned that Wakefield and West Yorkshire would be "left behind" if they did not back the deal.

Speaking at a virtual full council meeting on Wednesday, the local authority's leader Denise Jeffery accepted that the volume of local responses to the consultation was "not brilliant".

But she said the financial implications of the deal, as well as the Government's plan to force a mayor on West Yorkshire regardless, made it impossible to refuse.

She said: "We couldn't consult in the way we wanted to do, by having local meetings and engaging with people, and really people have had more on their minds this summer than whether we have another mayor or another politician.

"A few years ago (in 2012) we voted against an elected mayor and I led the campaign against that.

"But government have been clear, we can't have the deal without one.

"Mayoral combined authorities are the way forward for this government and Wakefield and West Yorkshire must not be left behind."

The leader of the council's opposition Conservative group, Nadeem Ahmed, raised concerns about local planning powers being lost to a new mayor, as well as the potential prospect of more tax being levied.

The meeting was told each of the five West Yorkshire authorities do have a veto on any decision the mayor will make.

But Coun Ahmed added: "I think it's a policy that will benefit Wakefield and the wider West Yorkshire region.

"It's important Wakefield takes a lead in the combined authority and doesn't lose out to Leeds.

"But I think the deal does present us with a great opportunity.

"I've always been in favour of powers held by government being passed over. This, I hope, is the start of that and I don't think it will be the end."

The authority's sole Liberal Democrat councillor Tom Gordon was the only member to vote against the deal.

He questioned the legitimacy of the consultation being carried out during the Covid pandemic and claimed the amount of cash Wakefield would take per year once the £1.8bn was broken down was relatively meagre.

He said: "If you filled in the consultation, the questions were incredibly biased.

"The questions were leading and pushing people down the tracks where they were told the only way they'd see investment is if they agreed to this. This was a consultation designed with an answer in mind. It's disappointing."

Referencing the number of responses, many of which he suggested would have been councillors and their families, he added, "We're speaking to ourselves here. I do want to see devolution but this deal doesn't cut it for me."

In response, the council leader slammed Coun Gordon's tone and repeated criticism of local authority policies, branding him "Harry Opposite".

Coun Jeffery said: "Well, what a surprise. Anything that the rest of us or the Labour group want to do - you can say what you like. You're a one man band and you've no responsibility.

"It isn't ideal, it's not what we want. We don't want another politician, nobody does.

"But we need to go forward with this because we need the funding."

Leeds City Council gave their seal of approval to the deal on Tuesday, despite Conservative members there criticising their own government's approach to devolution.Local authorities in Calderdale, Bradford and Kirklees are expected to follow suit this week.

Local Democracy Reporting Service