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.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Power to the North? - the jury is still out.

I attended an interesting event on Friday 22nd of January, in Leeds University, entitled “Power to the North? Prospects and Challenges to Devolution & City Deals in the North of England” and the aim of the event was to “gather views from across Yorkshire and the North of England on devolution, the Northern Powerhouse, and ‘City Deals’, so as to reflect on and understand the impact, potential and challenges of the new agenda.”

A weighty aim by any standards for a one day event but an aim that was largely met. An opening address by Professor Martin Jones of the University of Sheffield highlighted the way government has and continues to get in the way of local government running their own affairs. He commented on a governmental pathology of re-organisation over the last forty years or more and the plethora of strategies, programmes and 'deals' that have been applied, willing or not, to local government in the same period.

He also outlined the contradictory tensions inherent in the current dash for 'devolution deals' with the city regions. Localism and it's impact on the centre, Accountability and how it's created, the role of the Private Sector in these deals & Governance models, imposed or otherwise.

This was followed by a keynote speech by Lord Bob Kerslake, a name famous or infamous in Sheffield from his years as the City's Chief Executive. Having recently retired as a head of the civil service and been elevated to the Lords, he is chairing an all party inquiry into 'better devolution'

The interesting bits in this speech were his comments that the public were so far missing in this conversation about the devolution programme. We, the public, have noticed this. He also suggested that devolution is not universally approved of within central government because it is disruptive to the civil service and their own central programmes. This comment in particular explains for me why so many parts of the Sheffield deal are still under negotiation or are based on delivering central government targets rather than targets set locally by the city region.

We then broke for a light lunch and although he was in a hurry to catch a train I did manage to ask if Lord Kerslake might consider standing as the elected mayor for the Sheffield City Region. He demurred, commenting he would not wish to do that job.

The afternoon session was a series of 'roundtables'. Groups of speakers commenting from their perspective on the challenges of the 'devolution' deals. The first was politicians and senior council officers. The consensus amongst them was that the deals were the best available at the moment and that without the deals, austerity would ensure that Northern councils would continue to perform poorly compared to their Southern counterparts. They also espoused the need for co-operation between the Northern cities but also managed to snipe about Sheffield having spoiled a Yorkshire consensus, even though Manchester was the first deal of this nature in the North and that this broke the consensus.

The second round table was composed of community campaigners. The politicians of course left so they would not have to hear what the public thought about the issues. The consensus from the communities was one of uncertainty. Whether about the secrecy of the negotiations process, the lack of public involvement through meaningful consultation or the didactic imposition of structures and governance for the regions.

Finally there was a round table of academics. They were broadly in agreement with the community panel, concerned about lack of public understanding and support for the process and the resultant deals. The report by Dr. Brenton Prosser on the Assembly North events in Sheffield highlighted that the general public are more than capable of analysing and debating complex issues around constitution and devolution and that, in many cases, their ambition for the regions and cities of the North is far greater than the 'pragmatist' ambitions of the political classes.

Overall therefore, an interesting day. Disappointing that the politicos failed to stay for the presentations of the community and academic panels but no real surprise. It is as if they are unwilling to listen to the alternatives in case they find they agree with them. Central Government has local politicians scared to refuse the offers on the table, even though they are not what they want or what the public want. I guess the ambitious devolutionists amongst us must continue to press for more, even if we are being treated like Oliver in front of Mr Bumble.

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