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.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The First 100 Days – The Mayor of Sheffield City Region

On the 14th July I attended an event organised by the Centre for Cities, an independent cities think tank. I won't comment on their political colour, check out their website and judge for yourself. It was hosted by the Centre's Chief Executive, Alexandra Jones.

The panel for the event were Lord David Blunkett - Chair of the Sheffield City Partnership Board, June Smith Engineering Employers Federation(EEF) and Dr Craig Berry – Deputy Director of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute(SPERI). The audience amassed about 50 or so, mostly male, all white and generally over 50, reflecting the general apathy around this whole debate.

Alexandra Jones introduced the event as part 4 of the continuing programme of discussion on the priorities of City Region Mayors, to be elected in May 2017, focussing on the first 100 days of the role. She described the historic nature of the changes and the success of the Manchester Region in securing further deals above and beyond the original devolution agenda. She did also however express concern over the lack of certainty for the whole devolution agenda with ongoing changes in the Cabinet and the acknowledged role of Osbourne as the champion for these deals.

As she was speaking I have to say my own thoughts were more about this not being the least bit historic, as it was not a constitutional change, but just one more in a string of local governments re-organisations dating back to the 70's. My thoughts on the Manchester deals was around the £1Bn hole in their Health budget and their recent accession to the 'Justice' system powers due to have budget cuts of 25 to 30% next year. Devolution of powers or austerity & blame?

The first speaker was Lord Blunkett. His first comments were to clearly state that he was not going to put himself forward for the Mayoral job. That list is getting shorter by the day. He then went on to outline three areas he felt the Mayor should concentrate on in the first 100 days. Briefly these were; To have created a manifesto based on the ideals of the Sheffield 'Fairness Commission', to work to heal the divide in the city and the Region and to bring all the Councils together in common cause, recognising that sometimes the rivalries within the region and further afield were counter productive. To reach out to councils & councillors and ensure a definite role for them in the region. To look at the role of the public & civic society and potentially take on the lessons of the 'citizen's assemblies'. To develop something more than just an economic policy role for the Mayor, adding social policies as well. He briefly commented on Europe and envisaged a potential for the Mayor in engaging with EU cities to bridge the 'Brexit' gap and potentially a new Hanseatic League to foster European ties.

The next speaker was June Smith of the EEF. Her main points were about the Mayor's role in business and local government working together to optimise growth for the region. Getting planners to understand the needs of businesses and develop pro-business policies. There were also comments about the diversity of businesses in the region and the need for a broader range of businesses to be heard by the region and the Local Enterprise Partnership(LEP) and that the EEF could help with that. Finally that the Mayor's role with transport should ensure it supports growth of business and develop a consistent approach to business support.

Dr Craig Berry rounded off the speakers and he started with a warning that the current model of devolution was unlikely to deliver sustainability and growth particularly after Brexit. The theory on which the city regions were expected to succeed, 'agglomeration' around economic benefits, showed no evidence for developing successful cities and that the most successful cities were where the state had an integral role in involving social policies in the regions. He also commented that agglomeration was a divisive type of growth as it meant winners & losers. He asserted that we need to go further in to the basics of power and discuss on a national basis where powers should reside and make devolution plans appropriate to that outcome, before city regions could be truly successful. He was also concerned that the model in place would only further entrench the adversarial politics under which we currently operate, illustrating an assumption that seemed common to the panel that only political parties would field candidates.

The chair then opened the discussion to comments and questions from the floor. I won't try to provide comprehensive coverage, as the event will probably be available online in due course. My own comments and question were around the earlier comments I made on the lack of constitutional settlement for these devolution deals and the doubts around Manchester's deal and the transfer of austerity blame as well as powers. My final comment and question was to highlight the forecast by Barclay's that the UK is about to enter a year of recession and what would happen to promised funding if the city region failed to meet growth targets.

The responses were weak and centred around the idea that a positive and ambitious approach to the devolution deals and the Mayoral model will give business confidence enough to continue to invest. The crux of my question about the funding link to growth and the consequences of failing to meet those targets was not responded to by any of the panellists.

Where does that leave us? For me I feel the whole devolution agenda is now in serious trouble. Brexit has undermined the funding basis for a great deal of the regions ambitions, particularly for the Universities and the 'knowledge economy' they represent. The sacking of George Osbourne removes the champion of devolution from the game and with a cabinet minister at DCLG (Department of Communities & Local Government) who is a proven centraliser, he is responsible for the decision to close the Sheffield office of the Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) department, there may be precious little enthusiasm for continuing or expanding the whole process of devolution.

We are all whistling in the dark and hoping that the nightmare goes away. Meanwhile uncertainty and chaos reigns in Government and Opposition and the UK continues to drift.

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