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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.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Sheffield Executive Board Meeting of 10th December 2014, by Nigel Slack.

“Devolution but not as we want it” might have been the subtitle of the first session of the meeting today, as the Board were given the opportunity to discuss local devolution and what it might look like.

The session was opened by Sharon Squires (Director, Sheffield First) who gave a brief comment on the 'English' model of devolution being promoted by the government. That is to say, regions (and at the moment it seems to be available only to City Regions) must ask for the devolution of specific powers. Westminster will then consider this, the Regions ability to prove they are able to provide the devolved policy delivery, and may agree the deal on powers based on targets and outcomes. This is known as 'Functional' devolution.

The other forms of devolution not generally available in England but already granted to Scotland and in some measure Wales are 'Fiscal', concerning the devolving of monetary and tax powers and 'Constitutional' concerning the devolving of governance and accountability. She was then hoping to discuss what might be the 'ask' from Sheffield as a city and the City Region by extension. This generated some discussion but it became clear that most members were struggling to start to visualise what may be possible.

Speculation then arose as to what might be on offer in the current deal being thrashed out by the Cabinet Office and the City Region. It seems likely that the Manchester deal will be a good starting point and that the areas on offer may well be Transport Infrastructure, Planning, Housing & Public Assets, Business Support and Skills & Training. This illustrates that the deal on offer is about the Regional Economic Geography and promoting economic growth rather than anything else.

There was some support for this approach from the private enterprise side of the membership, commenting that economic growth should be the focus for devolution and improving economic performance would be the result. Professor Gordon Dabinett (Regional Studies, Sheffield University) commented that in many European cities economic performance was improved not just through functional devolution but was further enhanced through a tie in to fiscal devolution. He also commented that without constitutional change it is just a rebalancing of economic power.

Julie Dore (City Council Leader) added that to improve the city's economic performance also needed the devolution of investment powers so the local area could define their investment priorities rather than government. There was also discussion about the redistributive approach of current local government funding and concern was expressed about how devolution would affect this. Gordon Dabinett commented that the implementation of progressive regional policies produced an economic benefit. In other words redistribution of wealth to the regions is better for all not just the regions.

A problem highlighted however was the fact that the redistribution formula is not transparent, accountable or understood. As a result it was difficult to assess alternatives or the impact of minor changes to such a complex system's outcomes. This might be illustrated by the current reductions in funding being imposed on many of the poorest areas of the country whilst some wealthy Counties are receiving increasing levels of funding.

This was followed by a suggestion from one member that we should perhaps only ask for the things we need from devolution rather than an extensive wish list. Gordon Dabinett suggested that evidence indicated devolution fails where the ambitions of devolution weren't big enough. James Henderson (Sheffield City Council, Director of Policy, Performance and Communications) suggested that we might consider the 'outcomes' we wanted as a city and then look at the levers we need to achieve that, as a way of determining the devolution we need. Devolution on 'Sheffield's' terms.

Julie Dore commented that we need to connect devolution to what people want, that it's not all about money but about decision making powers as well. This seemed, for me, to highlight the basic differences in the room between those that see devolution as being entirely about economic development, which the likely current deal is and those who want devolution to be about more than that. Gordon Dabinett commented that the deal as proposed is not a 'settlement' (backed by legislation) and therefore not devolution. He also suggested that devolution will only become real when attitudes within Whitehall (Civil Service) change in favour.

This whole conversation illustrates, for me, the lie of the current debate around devolution for England's regions. Central Government, whether politicians or civil servants, are not serious about the real devolution of the full range of powers (economic, fiscal, and constitutional) but are only interested in passing out specific functions in policy areas that they can continue to target and control through funding whilst grandstanding for party political purposes. They also see the opportunity to devolve contentious policies, like the previously devolved 'bedroom tax' responsibilities and the potentially explosive 'workfare' programmes in the current Manchester deal.

The City Council, the City Region and the city's influential leaders, represented at this meeting, need to be clear about this and be open with the public about it too. The public have been told that the government are driving this process and their need for a decision by the Autumn Statement on December 3rd meant we had no opportunity for a consultation period. This announcement did not materialise and the indications are the decision is now targeted at pre-Christmas but is stalled on Whitehall demands for a Metro Mayor and the City Region being unwilling to accept that. I guess we'll just have to wait and see who blinks first.

For me and, I know from the comments I get, the public are completely unimpressed by the whole affair, the secrecy of the negotiations and the lack of consent from the electorate. This so called devolution solution is simply not good enough.

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