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The public should know all we can about the business of the decision makers that affect our lives, our wallets and our democracy. This is a record of my efforts to try and improve the levels of transparency and accountability within Sheffield City Council and others. To shine a light on how decisions are made and where the money goes. If I can also help others to find their own voice and influence along the way, then that is a bonus.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Divide & Conquer the North? - by Nigel Slack - 3rd Nov 2014.

In the space of two days the idea of a considered and careful deliberation over the future of devolution in the North has become a done deal for Manchester and the source of huge problems for other Northern cities like Sheffield and Leeds.

Sunday started with the Daily Telegraph announcing that George Osbourne and Nick Clegg have agreed to give 'London style' self rule to Manchester, Sheffield & Leeds. The details were supposed to be announced in the Chancellor's autumn statement and the Nick Clegg sponsored Northern Futures Summit in Leeds on the 6th November would enable 300 experts, business leaders and politicians to vote on various options for the planned handover of powers.

By, what we in the North would call tea time Monday around 5pm, The Guardian's Public Leaders Network was reporting that the Manchester part of that Northern triumvirate had already done a deal with HMG. In exchange for agreeing to the imposition of a City Region Mayor, directly elected of course, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority would be given the extra powers earlier outlined and we're told control over £1Bn of public spending.

So within the space of twenty four hours the goalposts had radically changed. This gives the leaders of the two remaining City Regions a big headache. They have to think fast, do they continue to try and come up with a considered and consensual approach to devolution? One that fits their needs and is acceptable to the people they govern, or do they, for fear of falling behind the new Manchester Juggernaut, clamour to be allowed the same powers for the same concession to Mayoral style management?

We have to ask ourselves a question. The Manchester announcement comes three days before the Northern Futures Summit, directly after various other announcements about Opposition Party policies in this area and in time to have at least the Manchester Mayor in place, albeit an interim one, before the next General Election. Is this a coincidence? Probably not, there are very few coincidences in this type of political manoeuvring.

Why is this such a problem? I guess for me and for many other people that I've been in touch with over the last two days it comes down to one basic problem. The public are once more being handed some form of top down reorganisation that we have neither been involved in the design of nor asked for our consent to. The devolution of the English regions came to the fore after the Scottish Independence Referendum and the hope, throughout the country, was that there would be a serious and considered conversation. An inclusive discussion between academics in the field, politicians national and local, community leaders and, most importantly, the public about the form and function of devolved local government. The aim being to bring about a consensus that would stand the test of time and that could be enshrined in law to take the central interference out of local government.

This is now being denied us and in favour of a Mayoral system of governance that the Northern cities rejected as recently as 2012. In the referendums of that year Manchester rejected a Mayor by some 53% of the vote and Sheffield by 65%. The idea of a Mayor, however, remains attractive to the Government, why? Possibly because, although London as a region is dominated by Labour Councils, the 'city' is governed by a Conservative Mayor. This imposition is potentially seen by some, as a means to break the long standing Labour domination of the Northern cities.

Beyond this basic injustice of not giving the public a say, however, there are also other issues that may be leading the Northern cities into a well orchestrated trap. The plan outlines a number of new powers to be given to these new devolved Mayoral cities. The fact that these new powers will not be linked to any new money means that the government also get to drop fault for future cuts firmly in the city's lap, Cuts to or increased fares for public transport, the city's fault. Problems with integrated Health and Social Care budgets, the city's fault. Implementation of the controversial 'Welfare to Work' schemes, the city's fault.

Add to this the fact that whilst some of the powers are attached to funding currently managed by government and this will come to the Mayors alongside the powers, it will still be attached to specific projects and unavailable to the general spending power of the region so is still controlled by government targets and performance expectations. Financial independence? No, just more responsibilities to implement central policies.

This video that follows is a reminder of just how bad the finances are for Sheffield for the next financial year.

Sheffield City Council's Budget Conversation 2015/16

These announcements over the last two days have therefore managed to achieve some important goals for the coalition. The consensus of the Northern cities has been broken with Manchester now being held up as a beacon of the future and Sheffield and Leeds being lured into the same honey trap, and the Councils are being divided from their electorate, who are getting no say in this process and will therefore blame the councils when it all goes pear shaped.

Above all however, this is a process not properly thought through, with no support from the public and with no foundation in law. If the next government is of a different mind they can change this arrangement, again, and all this will go away.

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