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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.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Sheffield Devolution – Decline & Fall?

The 18th September 2017 may have been the final death knell of Sheffield City Region Combined Authority as we know it.

I first wrote about the Sheffield City Region devolution deal in October 2015 as it burst forth from behind closed doors. The secret talks held between regional & national politicians resulted in a devolution agreement presented by George Osbourne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the four leaders of the South Yorkshire Metro Councils. I have written on this deal 12 times since then.

As has been widely reported, the meeting which included those same four Councils failed to agree on further consultation on a scheme of governance that essentially reverted back to the devolution proposals original form.

My analysis of the original deal in October 2015 highlighted some serious concerns about the way the deal was written and agreed by the South Yorkshire Councils, without any public consultation, and also drew attention to certain aspects of the deal like the veto power of the Mayor on voting issues and the generally unfinished state of many of the 'powers' to be handed down to the City Region.

Some of the concerns I expressed were taken up by the Council Leaders and, in particular, the removal of a Mayoral Veto became a red line for Sheffield's Julie Dore when it came to finally ratifying the deal. Throughout, despite the signing ceremony with Osbourne, this devolution deal was referred to as a proposal requiring public consultation and ratification by elected Councillors in each Council.

The pressure from HMG however meant the public consultation was hasty and, in some opinions, flawed or even biased and the final ratification was laid before the full Councils of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham & Sheffield in March of 2016, a scant 5 months on.

By July 2016 things had changed. Osbourne was no longer Chancellor and the champion of this kind of devolution was gone. The Department for Communities & Local Government now took up the reins of delivering the deals already agreed and the Minister therefore lacked the leverage over the Treasury that Osbourne had enjoyed.

The opportunity for Chesterfield & Bassetlaw, non voting members of the City Region, to become mainstream members and therefore take part in the Mayoral Election came and went. Decisions were delayed by consultation requirements, a Judicial Review called by Derbyshire County Council. Which the Regional Authority lost. Plans for a new consultation and a General Election in June 2017.

A year was lost to this back and forth, meaning the planned election for the Mayor was put back to 2018 and, following a Conservative victory in Derbyshire, the final withdrawal by the non South Yorkshire Councils in June 2017. This abandonment of a supposedly 'appropriate geography' was rationalised by themselves and the Metro Councils but was also an indication of cracks in commitment to the deal.

As a result, almost immediately after this in July the City Region chose to delay a final decision so that Barnsley & Doncaster could explore the burgeoning demands for a 'One Yorkshire' devolution deal. The Council Leaders of Barnsley & Doncaster continued at this stage to express commitment to the Sheffield deal but for many commentators, the writing was on the wall. HMG continued to insist that a 'One Yorkshire' devolution discussion was not on the table but an alleged 'coalition of the willing' of 17 of 20 Yorkshire Councils continued to discuss the idea.

Come the 11th September 2017 the City Region Meeting that was supposed to kick off the final leg of the deal, consultation, papers to the Secretary of State, Parliamentary vote, second ratification by the four metro Councils, stumbled once more and put the decision off until the following week at special meeting.

One has to assume frantic back room conversations were taking place, a fact confirmed to me by a senior LG Officer, to avert what was becoming an obvious crisis. At the Extraordinary Meeting on the 18th the axe finally fell. The City Region executive presented a paper on the options available to the four leaders. Each of the leaders stated their positions on the paper's options and with two for and two against the main recommendation, full devolution powers and £30M a year, this option was not agreed.

Much has been written on the mood and recriminations within and after the meeting but the simple fact is that any hope of a serious devolution deal in time for Mayoral Elections in May 2018 vanished in that puff of selfish political game playing and righteous indignation. The roots of the fall out between the four Labour Councils will be debated for a while I suspect but the main impact will be felt by the people of the region whose futures are less certain and probably less prosperous as a result of what appears to me to be individual hubris amongst Council leaders from the same political party.

What happens now?

It would seem that the automatic fall back position is the one outlined in option 3 of the SCRCA report. This would result in an election being held in May 2018 for a Mayor with no powers and no £30M a year. The four Councils would also be responsible for paying for this election, estimated at £1M, and paying for the mayor's Salary and any administrative support, cost unknown. It also reintroduces an element of the Mayoral Veto, with the mayor having to consent to any governance changes such as boundaries and membership of the Region.

Julie Dore, as leader of Sheffield City Council, has indicated conversations are ongoing about all these issues but there is no indication of any progress. However, a week is a long time in politics, so who knows what will happen next? The 'One Yorkshire ' deal is already under pressure as some of the 17 in the coalition of the willing are supporting the HMG position that the deal should not include any of the South Yorkshire Councils. You will not be surprised that these are the Conservative authorities that are expressing doubts.

As I have commented on a number of occasions, getting the 17 Yorkshire Councils to agree to anything over the long term when the 4 South Yorkshire Councils are unable to agree where the sun comes up will be like plaiting fog.

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