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.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Sheffield's 'Devolution' Deal – The Last Lap?

Friday's special Full Council meeting voted to approve the ratification of the so called 'devolution' deal that first came out of it's closet in October last year.

Until October, following Manchester jumping first, the deal was in the offing but because of secretive negotiations, any details were entirely unknown. The deal hit the ground running with a public signing ceremony complete with the Chancellor and the four Metro Council leaders of South Yorkshire looking cosy, right before the Conservative Party Conference. Despite later insistence from the council leaders that this was a 'proposal', a signed document committed them to a process to agree the deal, either as it stood or subject, as it turns out to some further negotiation.

From that point on and with the relentless pressure of Government timetables snapping at their heals, the councils of the Combined Authority have acted with what some would call undue haste to ensure a deal was done. Questions and concerns from community groups and members of the public were played down, particularly around issues of a Metro mayor with veto powers and the wide range of clauses within the deal that were vague and uncertain. Funnily enough the Mayor's veto later became a 'red line' issue for Sheffield council.

So, by leaps and bounds, the process moved on. Discussions continued, behind closed doors, yet until late December the public was largely omitted from the process. A public consultation did happen over Christmas & New Year, (great timing) and the results were finally reported to the City Region mired in positive spin. Then councils started their ratification processes. Barnsley, Rotherham & Doncaster voted for the deal in very short order. No surprise really, the leader of Barnsley had commented at a Sheffield City Council scrutiny meeting that 'without this deal he would be unable to provide public services in Barnsley in the very near future'.

The North Midlands councils voted in favour, some agreeing to become full constituent members of the City Region, enabling them to vote for the Mayor. Only Sheffield remained. Before the meeting on Friday, Julie Dore's 'red lines' were apparently resolved to the council's satisfaction and the stage was set for a yes vote.

As a Full Council meeting there was a space for public questions. Only two members of the public were there to ask questions and, no surprise, I was one of them. In my question I outlined the litany of broken promises, pledges and targets typical of the last six years of 'austerity' and the essence of my question, rounded out by a number of technical points, was;

“Does the Council believe it can trust the current Government to honour it's commitments with respect to this so called 'Devolution' deal?”

The response came from Julie Dore, as Council Leader. The response was, essentially, no we cannot trust the Government. The Council will have to work ceaselessly to ensure the commitments are met and if they renege on any of the promises within the deal, we will withdraw. She also pointed out that until the order approving the deal went before Parliament there was still time to do so.

The Leader commented that this was the only deal available at the moment and that no-one could afford to miss the boat. Without this deal our city and our economy would fall even further behind the rest of the Cities in the country and that, even though the Government continue to control the purse strings, they can cut funding now or in the future with impunity anyway.

The chamber then went on to debate the deal amongst the political parties. At this point it all becomes quite acrimonious and playground behaviour. The gist of most of the contributions however were to the same effect. It's the only deal on offer, we know we can't trust the Government, any extra money is better than none, we make better decisions locally.

The missing links for me were around responsibility and blame. Nobody really acknowledged how the deal will enable the Government to place some of the responsibility for future austerity in local hands as well. If the deal falls apart through funding cuts, no matter what the facts of the situation, the blame will fall on the City Region and therefore the councils. That may not be true nor fair but that is how it will play out in the political spin olympics in Parliament and in the hostile media.

So with fingers crossed and hearts full of hope and dread in equal measure, it would seem, the Labour and Lib/Dem Councillors in Sheffield have set sail on Osborne's great experiment. The final act will be the ratification of the deal by the City Region Combined Authority , on the 31st March, followed by frantic, no doubt secret, discussions to try and get all the uncertainties resolved before an order is laid before Parliament towards the end of the year.

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