Exclusive: Archbishop’s intervention could finally end Yorkshire devolution stalemate

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has written to Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry about Yorkshire devolution.
Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has written to Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry about Yorkshire devolution.

A possible solution to Yorkshire’s long-running devolution stalemate that could see a region-wide mayor elected by May 2020 has emerged after an intervention by the Archbishop of York, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.

A letter by Dr John Sentamu to Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry, seen by this newspaper, sets out proposals for a two-year phased programme that would finally see vital powers for transport, housing and skills handed over from Whitehall to the region’s leaders.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

The plans outlined by the Church of England’s second most senior cleric, who met last month with local MPs, council leaders, trade union leaders and bishops, are a bid to overcome the Government’s objections to the proposed ‘One Yorkshire’ solution for a mayor presiding over the whole region of more than five million people.

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Setting out the view of those present at the meeting, where neither Sheffield nor Rotherham were represented, Dr Sentamu said that an “all-Yorkshire mayoral region would be the best in the long run”.

He said the South Yorkshire deal, which was signed by former Chancellor George Osborne in 2015 but thrown into doubt this summer after Doncaster and Barnsley pulled out, was an “excellent first and interim step towards this”.

I ask therefore whether discussions might begin, as soon as possible, around this compromise proposal, with a view to securing long-term benefit to Yorkshire and its people.

Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

But he said this would only be the case if agreement is reached with the Government before May’s Sheffield City Region mayoral election to pave the way for a two-year phased programme towards a deal for all of Yorkshire.

The letter said it was agreed that “urgent steps should be taken now to draw up plans by the end of January 2018 for an All Yorkshire Devolution Deal to take effect with the election of a Mayor for the whole of Yorkshire in May 2020”.

If this was agreed, the letter said, all South Yorkshire councils, including Barnsley and Doncaster, would “proceed without delay with the devolution deal for South Yorkshire taking effect in May 2018”.

Dr Sentamu wrote to Mr Berry: “I ask therefore whether discussions might begin, as soon as possible, around this compromise proposal, with a view to securing long-term benefit to Yorkshire and its people.”

“I am sure those present will be willing to offer time to this, alongside others, urgent as it is. Yesterday, along with the Bishop of Sheffield, I met with the leader of Sheffield City Council, who though not in agreement with the terms of the letter, expressed herself ready to engage in further talks.”

The Archbishop became involved in devolution talks after being urged to intervene in October by John Grogan, Labour MP for Keighley, who backs the One Yorkshire solution.

South Yorkshire’s devolution saga began in 2015 when Mr Osborne signed an agreement with Sheffield City Region leaders, who include Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.

An elected mayor would have been given £900m over 30 years and handed power over transport budgets and strategic planning. But in September Barnsley and Doncaster pulled out, meaning the mayor will have virtually no powers.

The two councils have signed up to a pan-Yorkshire proposal, initially backed by 17 of the 20 local authorities in Yorkshire. And they are now carrying out a community poll asking whether residents support a wider Yorkshire deal or a Sheffield City Region solution

Sheffield and Rotherham councils have not given their support to the One Yorkshire deal and the Department for Communities and Local Government says it is not prepared to consider any proposal that cuts across the Sheffield City Region deal.

The Archbishop’s letter on December 7 follows a meeting with Mr Berry on November 20, which prompted the Minister to write to him stressing the importance of avoiding fragmentation within South Yorkshire.

But it is understood Mr Berry said this did not preclude the possibility of devolution arrangements over a wider area ‘if that is what is desired locally’.

Doncaster and Barnsley councils are currently carrying out a community poll asking residents whether they supported a wider Yorkshire deal or a Sheffield City Region solution.

It understood that Yorkshire council leaders are due to meet Communities Secretary Sajid Javid once the result of the polls is announced on December 21.

A DCLG spokesman said: “There is no intention of undoing the Sheffield City Region deal that was agreed in October 2015, which has been partly implemented and would bring around £1 billion of new government investment to the area.

“We would welcome discussions with the other Yorkshire councils if they were to come forward with a widely supported greater Yorkshire devolution deal for rest of the county, providing this does not unravel the Sheffield City Region deal.”

The failure of Yorkshire to agree a devolution deal has prompted fears that the region will be left behind by other regions. In last month’s Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond said half of a £1.7bn transport fund would go to the six areas with metro mayors.

Last week, former Treasury Minister Lord O’Neill argued that a cabinet of four Yorkshire mayors, without a single figurehead, could be a way of ending the deadlock over devolution.