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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.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Devolution Scrutiny – Challenging? No! - by Nigel Slack

As I trailed in my last article here, there was a short notice meeting of the city's Overview & Management Scrutiny Committee on Thursday 10th December. The sole item on the agenda being the proposed devolution deal that is currently in it's public consultation phase.

The agenda reports, giving the committee the background to the deal they were scrutinising, were entirely positive about the intention and content of the proposal. Before the meeting I commented on this to all the members of the committee and was assured, in an e-mail from the Chair that they would “be able to play a role in providing a constructive challenge.“ I was to be sadly disappointed.

The agenda did not include the fact that the meeting would be taking 'evidence' from a range of speakers, all of which were supportive of the deal. Not a single dissenting voice was heard by the committee. They heard from John Mothersole (Sheffield City Council Chief Executive), Julie Dore (Leader of the City Council), Steve Houghton (Chair of the City Region Combined Authority & Leader of Barnsley Council), Martin McKirby (Representing the Local Enterprise Partnership) and a representative from the Centre for Cities, whose name I missed as the chair kept forgetting to use the microphone.

At the first hurdle therefore, I feel the exercise failed. The evidence put before the committee was unbalanced in a most outrageous way. In a public question before the main part of the meeting I did put forward a short comment on the evidence of the Assembly North conlusions on the deal. They wanted the deal substantially renegotiated and including fiscal autonomies. They would reject the deal as it stands and they were against the imposition of the Mayor for the City region.

The Assembly was delivered by the Electoral Reform Society together with academics from the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, the University of London and the University of Westminster. They were Supported by a team of experts from previous Canadian, Irish and Scottish assemblies supported by a team of experts from previous Canadian, Irish and Scottish assemblies. The participants for Assembly North were selected on a semi-random basis by an independent polling company and drawn from throughout the Sheffield City Region.

Despite this rigorous academic and fair approach, John Mothersole characterised the Assembly as “an invitation only event”. This is a level of dissembling that I consider beneath him and demeaning to the efforts of the Assembly staff, the academics and the participants. Steve Houghton commented later, that the only negative things he heard about the proposed deal were in respect of the Mayor. Having been at the Assembly, when he was being questioned by the participants, I would have to disagree with that statement as well. So the 'spin' doctors were in full effect.

Next we must ask whether the committee members challenged the proposed deal effectively? It is true that each member of the committee asked at least one question but their was an element of repetition, with two main concerns being to the fore. Sue Alston (LibDem), Steve Ayris (LibDem) and Jack Scott (Lab) questioned the role of the non-constituent councils and the awkward geography involving County Councils. The response was that these councils were certainly supportive of the new amendment that would allow them to become constituent members of the CA without their County's assent and that some may choose to exercise this option.

Steve Ayris, Jack Scott and Chris Rosling-Josephs (Lab) asked about different aspects of the Mayoral model and the Mayor's Veto. The response to these questions has essentially been in the public arena since Cllr Dore's press release last week stating her opposition to the mayoral veto and her willingness to stop supporting the deal if no resolution was forthcoming. Somewhat wasted questions really.

Beyond those two obvious aspects of the deal the remaining questions were on disparate issues. From Aoden Marken (Green) asking about the 'best argument against accepting the deal?', none apparently. Geoff Smith, Jack Scott and Aoden Marken, were concerned over the lack of detail in the proposal (Jack Scott implied 37 areas of clarification needed) and how the continued negotiations would be communicated to the public. The response was along the lines of 'trust us to sort it out', though not in so many words. John Mothersole did admit that all the detail would not be resolved in time for the Council's decision deadline in February.

Geoff Smith and Jack Scott questioned some of the economic basics, are we being set up to fail? And concern that business rates as a measure of economic success is potentially troublesome. (successful areas can end up with lower rates returns as the types of business change) There was some agreement with this but, oddly, not an area that is highlighted for inclusion in the committee's response to the deal.

Generally therefore some interesting questions but challenging? hardly. Questions on the Mayoral model are playing to the supporter's strong suit and are already in the public mind. Questions on the Regional geography were there but were not followed through, in other words no-one asked, what are the financial impacts of Districts that choose to opt in to the CA, will they add money to the pot or be a drain on resources? On business rates there was some comment but no-one questioned the impact of the region only receiving 100% of the business rates for new rateable businesses 'beyond those already forecast'. What is the current forecast? what is needed to exceed that?

In addition there was no comment on a number of areas that I find particularly troubling. The City Region will be responsible for implementing the 'workfare' scheme on behalf of the DWP, who will still have strong influence on the design of the scheme and who are well placed to reduce their “funding envelope” leaving the CA to top up the funding deficit. The protocol for borrowing against the £900M is not detailed, could this be a new PFI disaster? Most worrying though is paragraph 61. which, despite assurances that the individual council's powers will be safeguarded, states “The Sheffield City Region Combined Authority will continue to set out their proposals to HM Government for how local resources and funding will be pooled across the city region.” suggesting to me formal amalgamation of some services under the CA and away from local council's.

Overall, therefore, the scrutiny did not fulfil the Chair's hope of it being challenging and with over an hour of the meeting devoted solely to statements by the five supportive witnesses, the committee were unable to deal with the matter in any detail or depth. I can only urge people to engage with the public consultation (click here), and you will hopefully provide the challenge that the OMSC did not.

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