A northern Tory councillor and his view on devolved power

Tomorrow I’ll be toddling across to Leeds where, among other momentous matters, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority with consider whether to change its name to Leeds City Region Combined Authority. This has caused a ripple of disgruntlement in my city as people ask quite why this decision is being taken now and whether it marks the end of Bradford’s separate and individual identity.

I don’t like the proposal. Mostly this is because it is totally unnecessary. We’re told by officers that the current brand (essentially ‘West Yorkshire’) is confusing because there’s another brand – ‘Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership’ – within the purview of the combined authority and having two brands might be confusing for high-powered, multi-million pound wielding international business folk wanting to invest. That and all the others are named after cities (well Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool at least but not Birmingham and Bristol).

The report tells us that the basis for the change results from ‘comprehensive research’:

“…benchmarking the WYCA against other combined authorities nationally or internationally, an audit of existing communications activity by the organisation, and substantial engagement with audiences including elected members, local authority chief executives, private sector business leaders, central government officials, partner organisations and WYCA employees.”

Sounds good – just the sort of paragraph I’d have put into a client presentation about research when I didn’t have any budget. What we have here is a series of chats with existing connections such as members of the LEP, political leaders (but not opposition leaders) in the West Yorkshire councils and senior officials who we work with. There’s no script, no presentation of findings, no suggestion that we’ve done anything other than ask the opinion of a few people who we already know.

In the grand scale of things all this probably doesn’t matter much. Except that, for us in Bradford at least, we’ll begin to recognise that plenty of decisions previously made by councillors here in Bradford are now made somewhere else (Leeds) by a different organisation. This – as councillors on Bradford’s area committees have discovered – includes mundane and very local stuff like whether or not to put speed bumps on a street in Cullingworth.

What annoys me most about this stuff is that we are gradually replacing accountable political decision-making with technocratic, officer-led decisions. So us councillors, for example, get pressure to put in speed cameras but have precisely zero say in whether and where such cameras are actually installed. Somewhere in the documentation of the soon-to-be Leeds City Region Combined Authority there’ll be a line of budget referring to the West Yorkshire Casulaty Reduction Partnership. That is what ‘member decision-making’ means most of the time these days.

So to return to the name change. I’ll be opposed because it’s unnecessary nd divisive. But when it goes through (I love that they’re planning an extensive ‘member engagement’ after they’ve made the decision) it will at least be a reminder that most of the big investment decisions out there are being made on the basis of Heseltine’s ‘functional economic geography’ rather than using the democratically-elected local councils we all know and love. OK, not love- that’s going too far – but you know what I mean.”