Devolution to the English regions is happening, and in some form or another seems certain to cover all parts of England during the current parliament. The government are insisting on directly elected mayors, and while I think it is a shame local areas do not have the option to propose alternatives forms of devolution, if an elected mayor is necessary to get devolution, then one needs to be accepted in my opinion. That leads to a debate over the geographic scope of individual devolution deals, and the policy areas/responsibilities to be devolved. I believe it is essential that the Humber region works together as one area in securing a devolution deal, preferably on it’s own, but if it necessary with neighbouring areas too.
One potential area for devolution is skills. There is already extensive cross-Humber co-operation through the Local Enterprise Partnership, with the Humber Skills Pledge, Humber-wide springboard programme and Humber Apprentice Support Service, as well as the new Humber UTC and a potential National College for Wind Energy. This is all at risk of being diminished if skills policy in the Humber region is split across two different devolution deals and two different mayors. Policy divergence would be a risk, and to avoid this there would need to be extensive co-ordination to ensure policy alignment which in turn could detract from implementation. One Humber wide elected mayor and associated authority could develop and implement one policy without needing to worry about these risks.
Some of the skills work in the Humber region has been built around the emerging development of the off-shore wind industry in the region. This is a massive shared opportunity for the North and South Banks, with plenty of investments and jobs for all areas. To fully maximise this, the Humber needs to be fully united and co-ordinated across marketing the area, facilitating inward investment and ensuring the provision of a skilled workforce. Working across two different authorities with two different mayors would make this a lot harder. It’s also worth noting that both Lincolnshire and other parts of Yorkshire (potential alternative partners for the south and north banks of the Humber respectively) have far less potential to directly benefit from offshore energy given their lack of ports and docks. It very much is a shared opportunity for the Humber.
Health services are another potential area for devolution. The current organisation of health services on the South Bank largely looks to Yorkshire as a partner, whether through the Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Trust or the provision of specialist services at Hull Royal Infirmary, Castle Hill Hospital, Sheffield Children’s Hospital, Pinderfields Burns Unit or in Leeds. Hull and East Yorkshire also look to South and West Yorkshire for very specialist care. It therefore would be most logical to partner at least within the Humber region from a healthcare devolution perspective. Also, I think that Lincolnshire generally looks to Nottingham and the East Midlands as a partner when required, a clear area of difference between North and North East Lincolnshire on one-hand, and Lincolnshire on the other. Any potential Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal would have to overcome this.
Transferring the role of police and crime commissioner (PCC) into a directly elected mayor has been suggested, a sensible suggestion in my opinion. However I can only see that this could work if a directly elected mayor’s boundaries matched that of the police. This leaves three options; a Humber-wide mayor replacing the Humberside PCC, retaining the Humberside PCC due to non-matching mayoral boundaries, or a costly and complex reorganisation of policing to match mayoral boundaries. Any reorganisation costs and complexity would be exacerbated by the increasing integration within Humberside Police and the recently introduced ‘one-force’ model replacing the traditional geographic based divisional structure. From a policing perspective I see the only sensible option as being a Humber-wide mayor.
Even in the area of transport, despite the estuary, there are common links between the North and South banks of the Humber. The most obvious link is the Humber Bridge, and any elected mayor and associated authority could potentially incorporate the Humber Bridge Board bringing the potential of administrative savings. Humberside Airport is a shared asset for the Humber region; a Yorkshire elected mayor and associated authority or even a Hull/East Yorkshire/parts of North Yorkshire elected mayor and associated authority maybe reluctant to support an ‘out of area’ airport while a Greater Lincolnshire elected mayor and associated authority may place more emphasis on links to East Midlands Airport given that for much of the Lincolnshire County Council area, Humberside is not the local airport. It would be far more preferable for one Humber-wide elected mayor and associated authority to be supporting the Humber region’s local airport. There are also shared interests across the North and South banks of the Humber covering the East Coast Mainline, A1 and M1, shipping/ports and some local bus services.
There could be potential for a directly elected mayor and associated authority to take over the role of the Humberside Fire Authority, however as with the police, this would only likely work if the directly elected mayor covered the entire Humber region. Like with Humberside Police, resources are shared across both banks of the Humber and any reorganisation would be complex and costly, yet without Humber region-wide devolution, the only other option would be to retain the Humberside Fire Authority as a standalone body.
While the government has stated that the South Bank will be part of the Northern Powerhouse initiative (and therefore I presume Transport for the North once it is formally established), south bank influence within the initiative would be limited should a Greater Lincolnshire mayor be established covering North and North East Lincolnshire as well as Lincolnshire. Presumably Lincolnshire would not be involved in the Northern Powerhouse – it would be very difficult to call Stamford, Long Sutton or even Skegness part of the North of England – so the result would be a mayor and associated authority ‘half-in, half-out’ and potentially therefore having limited influence over key policy. On the other hand a united Humber directly elected mayor and associated authority would be more likely to have greater influence.
It’s interesting how the Sheffield City Region has ignored traditional boundaries to reflect modern realities and local geography in the formation of it’s combined authority, including parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire as well as South Yorkshire. This is the type of working needed in the Humber region. Traditional boundaries are just that, traditional, historic, to be recognised in ceremonial counties. They do not reflect modern-day economic needs and sensible administrative boundaries. Not even the great Humber estuary presents a natural boundary any more, as the Humber Bridge and it’s reduced tolls have facilitated more integration between the North and South banks than ever before.
On the south bank I feel, as a Barton resident, that Barton at least is increasingly part of Greater Hull. There are residents moving to Barton from the North Bank to take advantage of cheaper house prices, and the reduced Humber Bridge tolls have made it far more affordable to travel to Hull and East Yorkshire for shopping and leisure. From a transport perspective, Barton had one bus per hour to Hull Monday to Saturday daytimes at the start of 2009; since 2010 it has had three per hour. Stagecoach (and EYMS) have invested in the Humber Fastcat and to a lesser extent Humber Flyer cross-Humber bus services. This tells a story of increasing inter-connectivity between the North and South banks of the Humber.
How successful it is remains to be seen, but looking at announcements from Hull City Council such as it’s City Plan, cruise terminal plans and concert venue plans, there is no shortage of vision for growth. Now is not the time for the South Bank to turn it’s back on the North Bank, weaken ties, marginalise existing co-operation or increase administrative hurdles to cross-Humber working. Now is the time for increased working together, so that the South Bank can influence these plans and capture the benefits as best as possible.
There may be times when a Greater Lincolnshire or Yorkshire approach is most appropriate, and one option could be to set up a formal leadership committee or similar to co-ordinate when appropriate. However I firmly believe these occasions are far less than when cross-Humber co-operation is the most sensible approach to take.
Finally I am struck that even when key figures in the debate are advocating other options than a Humber wide devolution deal, they still emphasise the need to work together across the Humber on business and economy issues. To me this shows that the Humber is a functional economic area with shared interests. Why is it being seriously contemplated ignoring this in the devolution debate? Why is the Humber region at risk of becoming the least united it has been since 1974? There are shared interests in a variety of areas; this is the time to boldly make the case for the Humber region in administrative and economic terms.Please leave your comments – and even better contact your local politicians to let them know your views, whatever they may be. Whatever your view, the end result will not have legitimacy if the public are not involved.