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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, 28 October 2015

Biased Consultation Proposed at Sheffield City Region Meeting?

Sheffield City Region Combined Authority Meeting 26th October 2015

This meeting turned out to be more informative than I expected. Not, however, because of the information volunteered by the chair of the meeting but because I could see, through the door of the meeting room, the presentation they received about the proposed consultation on the new 'Devolution Deal'.

There is nearly always a pre-meeting on these occasions, an opportunity for the members to discuss matters they don't wish the public to hear. This means that when the public portion of the meeting arrives they are able to race through the agenda in practised style, with little potential for controversy or need for debate.

It leaves something of a gap in the idea of transparency and open decision making. We do not get to see our representatives in action on issues that may cause disagreement, giving a false idea of an authority in complete consensus.

So, what did I learn from this pre-meeting slideshow? I learned that the proposed consultation is in danger of being flawed and biased. The comments on the presentation indicate a bias towards a positive message on the 'deal' and emphasising why the 'deal' is right for the City Region. Potential therefore that the documents in the consultation will be positive on acceptance of the 'deal', rather than neutral and equitable.

Phrases like “good deal”, “supported by the private sector”, “City Region at the forefront of the Northern Powerhouses”, leading the way”, “new money – new powers”, “protects sovereignty of Councils”, “residents & businesses well served by negotiations”, "Mayor & Combined Authority as partners”, “appropriate checks and balances”, all lead to the conclusion that the consultation is being seen as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a process to enable our representatives to assess our point of view before making up their own minds.

At the end of the full meeting Vicky Seddon (Sheffield for Democracy) and myself took the new officer employed for this role to task. We emphasised the need for the consultation information received by the public to be unbiased and that if members of the Combined Authority wished to voice support for the 'deal' that should be a matter for them rather than for the supposedly neutral public servants carrying out the consultation.

It is unfortunate that the City Region put an officer in this position in the first place and that their desire to emphasise the positive aspects of the deal should be considered as something appropriate for official papers about the consultation. The officer appeared to take this on board and agreed to feed our comments back to the Combined Authority but I suspect we will have to keep a very close eye on this consultation.

In the main meeting I asked three questions related to the 'Devolution Deal'.

1 Will the Combined Authority clarify the exact voting arrangements for each Council, constituent & non-constituent? The Chair's response was (in short) that only constituent members need to consent to the 'Mayor' aspect of the 'deal' but that the 4 constituent members, Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster & Rotherham, and the non-constituent members form N Derbys & N Notts would need to consent to the 'deal' in the Combined Authority decision.

2 Can the Combined Authority comment on the detail of the timescale from this point onwards? Response was that the Combined Authority would be asked to endorse the 'proposed deal' today. The City Region would then carry out consultation during November and December (but dates were not given) before individual Councils were expected to make their decision between January and March of 2016 and the final City Region decision would have to be made before 16th March. The 'deal' would them be implemented from 1st April (interesting choice April Fools Day).

3 Can the Combined Authority assure the public that the next draft of the 'deal' will be written with less openness to interpretation? (Para 4 seems to offer a Mayor's veto) Response was that the final document will be a 'Ministerial Order' which will be very detailed and technical and that all the relationships in the proposal were still subject to further negotiation. There is no intention at this time to give the Mayor a veto.

The final two sentences are a bit concerning, we are to be consulted on a draft rather than a final agreement (what changes may be made in secret, again) and a half hearted assurance on Mayoral veto powers (at this time?).

The meeting later progressed to endorse the proposal, subject to the consultation etc. James Newman, Chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership, (private sector businesses) commented that the LEP would undertake a similar consultation with local businesses over a similar timescale.

The meeting did nothing to assuage my concerns about aspects of this 'deal' and raised even more concerns over the neutrality of the consultation process. Keep an eye out for more in the next few weeks.

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