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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, 7 December 2015

Sheffield Devolution – The Merry Go Round.

The resemblance between the proposed devolution deal for the Sheffield City Region and a fairground roundabout has become more evident as time goes by.

The public consultation on the 'deal' is finally underway and it is being presented to the public covered in bright lights, gaudy new paint and upbeat loud music. Like a merry go round, however, the deal seems to be constantly shifting, of uncertain safety and already some people are thinking about jumping off.

The devolution proposal was signed by the Chancellor and various local leaders in October. At this stage Osborne made it look like a done deal but local Council leaders have always maintained the 'proposed' deal status in their meetings. Following the signing of the proposal I read the document quite carefully and published, on this blog, my initial concerns and comments about the potential pitfalls of the devolution deal here.

Although this article contained many comments, my biggest concerns were over the imposition of an 'elected Mayor' for the Region and the apparent power of veto that the Mayor would wield within the Combined Authority. I raised these concerns at the next meeting of the City Region Combined Authority. Before the meeting officials suggested that the way the agreement was written might be interpreted as a Mayoral veto but that this was not the intention and would be clarified in the further negotiations.

In fact I asked three questions and the minuted answers can be found here. The second of my questions asked about the consultation process and the timescale. This was proposed to start on the 16th November and finish after five weeks. Fortunately, prior to that there was a unique opportunity for the public to get an early say on the deal and the alternatives.

Over two weekends, 17th &18th October and 7th &8th November the Assembly North, a pilot 'citizens assembly was being conducted by Democracy Matters , a partnership of four universities and the Electoral Reform Society. The lead researcher was Professor Matt Flinders of the Crick Centre of the University of Sheffield.

Over those two weekends the participants, chosen by an independent polling organisation and representative of the four South Yorkshire council areas, were treated to a hothouse atmosphere, listening to various experts and advocates, myself included, about different forms of devolution. They debated amongst themselves, facilitated by Democracy Matters volunteers, and finally took a series of votes on the potential devolution prospects for the region.

The Assembly's initial conclusions are detailed in the press release here and the results may have knocked a little of the shine off the merry go rounds message. Apart from asking for more extensive devolution than the deal allows, the Assembly also voted two to one against accepting the current deal. A vote also came out strongly against the Mayoral model. This despite receiving strong positive pitches from John Mothersole (Chief Exec Sheffield City Council), Sir Steve Houghton (Chair of the City Region Combined Authority & Leader of Barnsley Borough Council) and Mike Emmerich (Founding Director at Metro Dynamics Limited) who currently advises other combined authorities about their devolution deals.

Since then the formal public consultation has been an on again off again affair. It certainly didn't arrive on the 16th November as promised. By the 29th November there were conflicting suggestions that it might start on the 1st December. On that date the consultation made a brief appearance on websites for the City Region and on the City Council's 'consultation hub' but, by the evening, had disappeared again.

The consultation formally went live on the 2nd December, yet on the same date in answer to a question at Full Council from me and supported by a press release the same day, Sheffield's support for the deal came under doubt. It seems the concerns I had raised early on were also being felt within the leadership. The leader of the Council, Julie Dore has always maintained her opposition to the Mayoral model for the Region but was willing to accept the imposition from Government if the deal was good enough.

Now, however, the potential for a Mayoral veto on Regional decisions is sharply in focus and they are reportedly in renewed negotiations with the Government to amend this part of the deal. Cllr Dore has gone so far as to state that she cannot support the deal if the Mayoral veto stays. The report on this new stance from the BBC here.

The latest spin on the devolution merry go round is a single issue meeting of the Council's Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee on Thursday 10 December 2015 4.00 pm in the Town Hall. This committee's role includes “Lead the scrutiny of high level cross-cutting and city-wide issues.” They will therefore use this meeting to discuss and come to some conclusion about the devolution deal. The agenda for the meeting is here. I would urge anyone who is about on Thursday, that can, to attend the meeting and see the Council's scrutiny function in action.

They will look to answer two broad questions;
What are the potential benefits of the proposed devolution agreement for Sheffield and the City Region?
What additional powers are required from Government to generate the economic impact we are seeking?
These questions and the background papers attached to the agenda are unremittingly positive about the deal and none of the concerns or pitfalls, apparent to many of us, are provided for balance.

More curious for me is, how is it possible address and scrutinise this deal when the detail is so vague and with large parts of it subject to further negotiation? The committee could end up supporting or opposing a 'deal' which bears no resemblance to the final outcome. It will be interesting to see.

I continue to have huge reservations about any devolution deal that has been negotiated in secret, imposes any model of governance that we, the public, have not been able to have a say on via the ballot box and that is being pushed through at breakneck speed for Government and the Chancellor's own reasons.

The deal however is here and we have just this one chance to have our say as members of the public. So get involved and fill out the consultation survey here. If you want to do more than that, get in touch with your councillors, tell them directly your views and ask them to represent your opinion in the vote that comes to Full Council in February or March.

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