About This Blog

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.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

When is Devolution Not Devolution? by Nigel Slack.

Since the Greater Manchester Combined Authority 'came out' as the first of the Northern Cities to be offered and to accept the Clegg/Osbourne version of devolution I have written about my concerns. I have written not only about their sudden acceptance of an imposed elected mayor but also about the weaknesses of the deal and the impact for the other Northern cities of this split in their, until then, united front.

Click here for the previous article Divide & Conquer the North? - by Nigel Slack - 3rd Nov 2014.

Since then there has been discussion and debate amongst a broad range of people as to whether this type of deal would be offered to Sheffield City Region and whether they would fall for the rhetoric. I use the word rhetoric because for me the Greater Manchester deal is full of holes, both in the freedom it alleges it will give Manchester and in describing it as devolution at all. The deal as outlined by the Daily Telegraph seems to be nothing more than an extended version of the 'City Deals' that have been around for a while now and which enable government to target funds at Local Councils in return for them following agendas and targets agreed between the two.

The freedoms being offered in the 'devolution' deal are similarly ringfenced with specific policy aims;
Housing Investment Fund £300M, to build houses.
Planning Powers, but no detail and presumably still bound by current planning law.
Local Transport, something already in negotiation in the North with Rail North and attempts to reintegrate bus services.
Pooling of Health & Social Care budgets, probably could be negotiated without this deal.
Greater responsibility for business support and economic regeneration, already being targeted at the City Regions through the Local Enterprise Partnerships.
£100M for 'welfare to work' making local councils responsible for administering National Policy on benefit claimants.

Why do I say this is not devolution? If you look at devolution as exhibited in Scotland you have some monies and policies determined by Westminster but, most importantly, a significant amount of money is given by way of a block grant with no strings attached and the Scots powers can decide how this money is spent. They can vary the way they spend that grant to achieve not only their legal obligations but also determined by their local policies rather than those handed down from on high.

That is devolution. In addition it is backed by legislation not some shady back room deal. Without an Act of Parliament the deals being bandied about by Clegg/Osbourne can be withdrawn by any future Government on a whim.

So where does that leave us in Sheffield? On the 5th I asked in the Full Council meeting a number of questions about the city's view on the Clegg/Osbourne deal. I knew something was amiss when a question I would normally expect to be answered by the Leader, Julie Dore was instead responded to by Leigh Bramall with his business and economy hat on. Then at the beginning of this week I was being told by a different city council cabinet member that there was no deal on the table.

Fast forward to Wednesday morning when I attended a meeting of the Sheffield Executive Board , that body of leaders from the city's public services, private sector and VCF sectors that influences the direction of policy within the city. The first hour and a half of the meeting was a closed session, public excluded.

Attending the open session it soon became obvious, from a number of dropped comments that the closed session had been discussing something about the 'devolution' deals doing the rounds. At the end of the meeting I enquired why the devolution discussion had been held in closed session and it became crystal clear that they had been discussing an actual offer on the table for the City Region to decide upon. I imagine and to some extent hope they were being asked their view, but possibly it was no more than an information session.

I was due to attend the City Council Cabinet meeting that same afternoon so drafted a quick question asking if the public would get an opportunity to consider and offer an opinion on the 'devolution' deal for Sheffield currently on the table, before the City Region decided? The answer, this time from Julie Dore was a straightforward No. She explained that they were under pressure to agree the deal before the Chancellor's Autumn Statement and therefore there would not be time. Just like that the option for any democratic debate on a huge decision for this city and this region is squashed.

The decision will now, presumably be made by the ten council leaders that make up the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority. Not by their Council's elected representatives debating the benefits or pitfalls of the idea, not by consultation and consent of the Millions of people over whom they will govern but by ten men and women behind closed doors negotiating and consenting to secret deals. That is why this is not devolution, it is not even democracy.

Finally we have to ask, why is the government so keen to have this deal decided before the Autumn Statement? The autumn statement is where the Chancellor reveals the Local Government settlement for the next financial year. In other words he will be telling local councils how much money they have to spend or cut over the following year. Could it be that once the City Regions have signed on the dotted line there will be a nasty clause in the small print that they have all overlooked? I guess only time and George Osbourne will tell but I wouldn't trust him would you?

1 comment:

  1. An invaluable post, revealing just why we need to be sceptical. Devolution should be about decision makers being closer to those who elect them. We could be forgiven for thinking this has all been devised to make it almost impossible for citizens to find out who's responsible.

    (By the way I think you've got Leigh Brammall down as Leigh Evans)