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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, 25 May 2016

Devolution – Now What? - Afterword

Once again this year, for the spring season of Sheffield's Festival of Debate, I hosted a panel discussion on devolution. In 2015 the panel debated what we were looking for from devolution for the city in the run up to the General Election. This year we were to look at what the recently agreed devolution looked like and where devolution might go next.

Another great panel, of diverse views, came together at the Central United Reformed Church to get to grips with it all. Jenny Cronin is Chair of Unlock Democracy Manchester, there to give a community activist opinion, seen from a City Region further down the line than Sheffield. Andy Gates is Head of Policy for Sheffield's City Region Executive Team, responsible for making devolution work and part of the team that negotiated the current deal. Dr Arianna Giovannini is a researcher at Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute based in the University of Sheffield, with a particular interest in devolution and territorial identity. Louise Haigh MP was elected in 2015 as Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and has had a very busy first year with her appointment to the Shadow Cabinet. Robin McAlpine is a Director of Common Weal the Scottish 'think and do tank' campaigning for social and economic equality in Scotland and was the only returning panellist from 2015. Finally we had Dr. Andy Mycock, Reader in Politics from the University of Huddersfield with strong opinions on the Devo Manc deal. He also researches on devolution, & the development of active citizenship.

Whilst I don't have space for a blow by blow account of the evening I will try to give shape to the overall discussion and the Q&A that was the major part of the evening. Picking out particular points of interest will be difficult, as a devolution geek it was entirely fascinating for me, but I'll do what I can. That means a wordy post I'm afraid but that can't be helped.

Each panellist gave an initial opening comment, on how they thought the current crop of deals panned out and what the future might look like. Without exception it was highlighted that the current 'devolution' or 'city deals' were light on real power transfer and were aimed almost exclusively at economic development rather than political power. There was also a significant consensus that the deals were an 'elite to elite' process and that the public were excluded, apart from some very weak after the fact, consultation. That lack of public involvement has lead Andy Mycock to a new campaign, in Manchester, called the 'People's Plan' to address the deficit.

There was concern expressed that the Sheffield deal was an unnatural combination of councils, in respect of identity, crossing county borders and that this would make consensus decision making more difficult. Andy Gates reinforced the point that this reflected the economic region, which was in line with the economic development content of the deal. This also led to some panellists being concerned that the deal was simply a way to pass the blame for future funding cuts to the devolved authorities rather than central government.

Looking to the future, all panellists agreed the public needed to be more integral to what happens with devolution next. Whether that was as architects of the next stages or simply through better informing them and better consultation over the plans, was a point of contention. It was, as Robin McAlpine is fond of saying, the difference between doing devolution for ourselves or having devolution done to us. He also reminded us that the path to Scottish devolution was neither easy nor fast. This brought up other concerns from panellists about the pressure for quick decisions on the current deals and the resultant ad hoc nature of different deals for different regions.

The Q&A centred, essentially, around four issues. The lack of knowledge and therefore engagement of the public, the imposition of the model and particularly the Mayor for the region, The very little amount of real power and even less money actually provided by the deals and the competitive nature of the negotiations and, despite the rhetoric, the danger of the regions becoming competitors for growth and economic development.

For some of the audience the make up and purpose of the city region was confusing, including which councils were members and why? Andy Gates stressed the economic footprint of the region, with Sheffield as the main driver of growth and development in the region but with the other councils being strongly bound to that economy. Arianna pointed out the difficulties of that combination in terms of developing a regional identity beyond economics when the region crosses County boundaries and Andy Gates and I further complicated matters by trying to explain the different types of Council membership. Which electorates can and can't vote for the Mayor etc.

On engagement Robin commented on the strength of the Scottish referendum campaign, being the depth and breadth of discussions, from pubs and street corners, to community halls and major debates, public involvement was at the heart of the campaign and the reason so many were involved at the actual vote. The 'elite to elite' negotiations of the English devolution deals on the other hand has purposefully excluded the public and for the City Region, Andy Gates saw this as a problem and one they hope to overcome for future devolution progress.

The concerns around the imposition of the same general model of a mayoral authority was universally seen as a problem by the panellists. Particularly because, despite this general model, each region was being given different versions of the model. Louise Haigh admitted that the opposition had lost control of the devolution debate in Parliament, unable to offer an alternative. In response to one particular question, it was also universally acknowledged by the panel that the devolution agenda and the 'Northern Powerhouse' was almost entirely about the Chancellor positioning himself for higher office.

The position and powers of the Mayor were also of concern to the audience and the panel. In the agreement, the Mayor has a veto over all decisions made by the combined authority, even though this is supposedly to be addressed by the authority's constitution. Even if, and it's a big if, that is the case, there was much comment from the panel on the confusion about who votes for the Mayor and what powers they will wield over those areas that don't vote for them. It was also commented on by both Andy Mycock and myself, in response to a question, that the process of the election of the Mayor is still a mystery, even though the vote is within a year and the candidates for Manchester are beginning to declare themselves. One member of the audience also asked about any recall powers, following the problems over our local PCC, such recall is not currently part of the agreement.

With questions on the region's powers and the new monies being made available, the panel all agreed the cash was never going to make up for the cash lost to austerity cuts in any individual council of the region, never mind the region as a whole. Andy gates indicated the money coming forth for all the aspects of the deal would now be in a common pot, rather than just the £30M a year 'extra' money but how this impacts on the expectations of parts of the deal, around what the region must achieve on behalf of central government targets, is still unclear. More than one panellist also gave voice to the concern about this being a means for passing the blame for austerity on to councils in budgets, particularly in Manchester, where future cuts were expected. (ie. Fire, Police & Health)

Lastly, on the questions about growth and competition between regions, there was no clear answer. It was accepted that retention of business rates growth would lead to reduction of the redistribution effects for more deprived areas and potentially competition for development funds within the city region. Inevitably in the current world economic uncertainty there may also be competition between devolved regions as their ability to meet government targets become harder. As to what happens if growth stalls completely, no-one really wanted to broach that issue.

At the end of the Q&A each panellist had time for a brief review of their initial views. The consensus remained on the need to engage the public better in future progress. As did the consensus over the desirability of devolution as a concept. From the community and academic point of view there seemed to be general agreement that the public should be in the driving seat of future devolution plans and from Louise there was the concession that opposition parties needed to start talking alternative models and also the potential of convening a form of constitutonal consultation or assembly to thrash out the best way forward.

I'd like to express my thanks to all the panellists for their time and their really valuable contributions. I doubt I've really done them individual justice. Thanks to the audience for engaging in the debate with thought and enthusiasm and finally my thanks to the Festival of Debate for indulging my passion for devolution and allowing me to host this event under their banner.

On one final note, there is something we all need to be aware of. This devolution is not a constitutional change. It is no more than a piece of legislation that alters the local and regional governance of parts of England. The next government could change the rules, the shape and the powers of these deals with another piece of legislation. Perhaps we shouldn't get too used to this devolution, it may not last.

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