They call it God’s Own County. Yet for decades Yorkshire has been divided into four, with some outlying lands even granted to local rivals.
Now campaigners want to ditch George Osborne’s city-region devolution plans and make England’s largest county the real Northern Powerhouse. They hope to re-establish Yorkshire’s ancient boundaries and build a “White Rose Parliament” to give the region control over its own destiny once more.
The grassroots county-wide devolution movement brings hope to people on the fringes of Yorkshire who were “severed” from the county in unpopular local government reforms in 1974.
They include members of the White Rose Society in Saddleworth, who have been fighting hard to keep their regional identity after being handed to Greater Manchester 40 years ago.
Other areas pushed beyond the border include Sedbergh, which joined Cumbria; Yarm, which joined Cleveland; and West Craven, which became part of Lancashire. Signs saying “Welcome to Lancashire” were torn down by activists there nearly a decade ago.
However, the campaigners’ demands have put them at loggerheads with the great Yorkshire cities of Leeds and Sheffield, which are pursuing devolution proposals of their own that could see them having to establish city mayors.
Nigel Sollitt, chairman of the Yorkshire Devolution Movement, which wants a Yorkshire based on old county boundaries to have a regional parliament, said: “Yorkshire as an entity pre-dates Scotland and Wales. You can date it back to 626AD to King Edwin. We have 1,400 years of history and heritage, and we think devolution should be arranged on that basis.
“Yorkshire was split up in 1974. It’s wrong that parts of Yorkshire should be called Cumbria or Lancashire. People still can’t accept that.”
The county’s 5.3 million population is the same as Scotland’s, and its £102bn economy is only just behind. But, as a county, it has nothing like the powers that have been devolved to the Scots.
Lib Dem Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland submitted an Early Day Motion last month calling on the Commons to recognise that people in all parts of Yorkshire identify with the traditional county. He also called on the Government to consider establishing a mayor for the whole of Yorkshire, rather than installing city mayors.
Mr Mulholland told The Independent: “We can either meekly accept what George Osborne wants and introduce city mayors, or we can push for a region-wide mayor who will raise the profile of Yorkshire across the country and abroad. People in the regions should be given options.”
The leaders of 11 local councils in Yorkshire also called on Leeds to abandon its devolution plans last month in favour of a county-wide bid, citing Yorkshire’s “strong regional brand”. Some towns in the North-east have even taken steps to “reunite” with Yorkshire. The market town of Yarm, near Middlesbrough, was refused an official review after people voted 89 per cent in favour of splitting from Stockton-on-Tees and joining Yorkshire in a referendum.
And people in nearby Thornaby-on-Tees also failed in a bid to break away from Stockton earlier this month, despite 72 per cent voting in favour of transferring to Hambleton in North Yorkshire. The two towns were made part of Cleveland in 1974, but were left on the wrong side of the border when it was abolished in 1996. Jason Hadlow, the mayor of Yarm, said: “Yarm was left stranded across the border and all we want to do now is to get back in to Yorkshire.”
Northern Powerhouse minister James Wharton, the MP for Stockton South, said yesterday that elected mayors in Yorkshire will be central to any deals to give the region devolved powers. A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “We are determined to hand as much power as possible to places that bring strong proposals and arrangements that are right for their local area.
“The Government has been clear that we will only transfer major powers to areas that adopt a directly elected mayor ... We are serious about ... driving forward the Northern Powerhouse and putting as much power as possible into local hands.”