This year, apart from being April Fool’s Day, April 1 will be the 50th Anniversary of the abolition of the three Ridings county councils in Yorkshire.
The Ridings is a word derived from Anglo-Norse “Thriddings” meaning Thirds and meant the legal and governance divisions of the independent Anglo-Viking kingdom of Jorvik, whose capital, also known as Jorvik, we now call York.
Jorvik remained an independent Kingdom until the death of its last King, Eric Blood axe in 954, but then became a powerful Earldom in the newly federated Kingdom of England under the control of Saxon Kings.
The name “Yorkshire” was first used in 1065 to denote a “Scir” division of England. This included its constituent three Ridings, what later became – to use the French word, “counties.” So, despite Yorkshire County Cricket Club, strictly speaking, Yorkshire was never a “county” as such but a province of England. divided into three counties in medieval times under the control of its capital York. Significantly just as the eldest son of the Sovereign traditionally becomes Prince of Wales, so the second son is appointed Duke of York to ceremonially oversee the historic Province of Yorkshire. The less said about that at the moment, the better!
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON
In 1974, after little debate and no democratic vote, our beloved Yorkshire Province was divided into what became the huge rural, landowner-dominated County of North Yorkshire – covering around two thirds of the land area of Yorkshire but with only a ninth of the population, and the heavily populated southern parts of West Riding divided into the two Metropolitan Counties of West and South Yorkshire. The old East Riding, after losing its northern fringe to North Yorkshire, was thrust into ill-fated Humberside. Worse, parts of what had been West Yorkshire were incorporated into Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Cumbria, and part of North Riding, including Middlesbrough went into the short-lived county of Cleveland – now Teesside. For many people, losing their Yorkshire identity was a cause of real upset and anger. Many are still angry now.
But even since 1974, there have been constant, confusing changes and arbitrary shifting of boundaries and names. The latest is the four “Metro” Mayors and “Combined Authorities” for Yorkshire. South and West Yorkshire Mayors have now been appointed, the York and North Yorkshire Mayor will follow in the next year and plans for a Hull and East Riding Mayor are now being implemented. A confusion of name and administration of our once great, united region.
Some people call this divide and rule. Some call it is levelling up. Others think it is tokenism. No one is right and no-one is wrong. Powers of the new Metro Mayors to represent the wishes of the people of Yorkshire, whilst welcome, are still limited. Budgets and resources will still be controlled by mandarins in Whitehall, especially the all-powerful Treasury. Many of these well-paid civil servants have lived all their lives in the affluent Home Counties and have never travelled north of Watford, believing Yorkshire is somewhere near Scotland, or simply in a generic ‘North’.
The facts support a sad story. Over the last few decades, overall, Yorkshire has been in steady and depressing economic decline, lacking the investment it needed for new industries and infrastructure. The cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham is just one example. But the real outrage is that the southern section from London to Birmingham will still go ahead, as yet another super-expensive London commuter route. Yet plans to modernise and rebuilt the Trans Pennine railway between York, Leeds and Manchester – still not electrified, or to build a desperately needed Mass Transit system for Leeds and West Yorkshire – the largest conurbation in western Europe without such a network, are still an effective pipedream.
The statistics are depressing. The average GDP (Gross Domestic Product, a measure of wealth), per head of population in the Yorkshire & Humber Region (and also other Northern Regions) is less than 50% of that of England’s most prosperous Region – Greater London. Government authorised transport investment in Yorkshire is less than a third of that of London, and yet Yorkshire has a population the size of Scotland and much more than that of Wales and Northern Ireland, all of whom have their own devolved governments or Assemblies. So why not us?
Economic decline should not be occurring in a Region of England with so many natural and human assets. We have a magnificent landscape with National Parks and National Landscapes (AONBs), wonderful coastline and abundant wildlife. We have several great cities and major cultural centres too. Yorkshire also supports a well-educated, highly motivated workforce, nurtured by its eleven Universities. The Region has huge potential for new green technologies, including geo-thermal and wind energy, and endless opportunity for new forms of environmentally sensitive farming and food production as food imports become more problematical. It’s full of potential but never seems to be quite fulfilling it and Yorkshire folk being the folk they, we accept our lot and just get on with life as best we can and nothing really changes.
IT’S TIME TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Two very influential recent (2022) independent reports, The House of Lords Select Committee on the British Constitution and the Commission on Britain’s Future chaired by former PM Gordon Brown, both conclude that there can be no “levelling up“ of the North without fundamental changes to the way we are governed, which must include Devolution for the English Regions, including Yorkshire presumably. Most people agree we don’t just want another layer of politicians to spend time and money self-glorifying debate and argument but do want to see existing institutions working better. This might include bringing in other sectors into the planning and decision making process, including the not-for-profit and voluntary sector, like The Yorkshire Society itself – a not-for-profit membership organisation for people who love Yorkshire, has big ambitions and big ideas that would benefit the whole of Yorkshire, like the very ambitious Yorkshire Expo+.
Understanding how we can best release Yorkshire’s potential in these challenging times is now urgent, not just for politicians and Local Government professionals but for everyone in our society. We need to build greater self-reliance among individuals and organisations to tackle the many challenges that lie ahead, in times of political and economic uncertainty, and in the face of a changing climate. For centuries, Yorkshire people have been renowned for their rugged independence, toughness, adaptability and determination in the most difficult of circumstances. Grit and determination in other words. As we enter the second quarter of the twenty-first century, these are the qualities we increasingly need to survive, prosper and indeed shape our future lives.
No one has all the answers but lots of people claim to have an answer to one thing or another. Everyone has an opinion. All this brain power going to waste because of a lack of coordination and consensus. And this perhaps is where the Society, in the short term, can be of most use given jts political neutrality. Several campaign groups, the local authority led Yorkshire Leaders Group and the One Yorkshire Committee, chaired jointly by Conservative Peer Lord Kirkhope and former Labour MP John Gogan, both Vice Presidents of the Society, the Campaign for Democratic Yorkshire and even the Yorkshire Party are already examining various ideas and proposals for Yorkshire’s future, aware that 2024 is likely to be Election Year. The problem is some of the groups talk to each and some don’t, some agree on some issues and some don’t agree on any issue. There are those who want a status quo and those who want a revolution, and lots with a wish to see Yorkshire get something in between the two. But how will we ever get to an agreement of what is best and what is practical.
The Society believes the ones who should be dictating the answer is the people of Yorkshire. The issue will not feature strongly in the forthcoming General Election, that’s for sure. It will be drowned out by more pressing and familiar issues such as the state of the NHS, the national economy as opposed to our local economy, conflicts here, there and everywhere we now need to keep an eye on, just in case, and the perpetual headache of immigration, in all its forms especially on those flimsy boats! And 50 years on from the abolition of our Ridings, it’s about time we, the people of Yorkshire, were given an opportunity say our piece on the state of our ‘nation’ of Yorkshire and its future. Be it status quo, revolution or something in between, it needs to be with the blessing and agreement of the Yorkshire people and the Society will do what it can to ensure that happens.
Perhaps its time someone got all the various groups, government administrations, political eaders, campaigners and members of the public with ideas and opinions on what’s best for Yorkshire, and put them on the spot – give them all an opportunity to say what they think and, once and for all, find a consensus on a strategy and plan that can achieve an agreed objective? It’s only taken 50 years!
We’d welcome your views.