From the moment devolution for the Sheffield City Region was announced, the agreement has been sailing on troubled waters. We’re now heading, in the final push, for some very stormy seas.
The announcement last October was an agreement between George Osborne and the City Region’s council leaders. The public and the elected councillors knew nothing. Devolution was imposed as a done deal. I expressed doubts about the deal early. You’ll find my blog and the archives of Now Then littered with articles unpicking the detail of the deal and the particularly harmful passages of it.
Changes were made, red lines declared and the removal of the Mayor’s veto agreed. Most of the councils involved in the agreement ratified the deal, but Sheffield held out. They only ratified on the basis that the core councils, which could vote in the mayoral election, were broader. Chesterfield and Bassetlaw Councils came forward and voted to join the core ‘constituent’ councils in the Region.
Choppy waters appeared to be calming and the blue skies of full ratification were overhead. A small cloud appeared to challenge Chesterfield’s decision to join the core councils and they had to re-run the decision, with the same result. Sheffield City Region itself agreed the ratification of the deal and all seemed plain sailing.
All that remained was to draft the ‘constitutional’ paperwork and send it to central government for approval. Then came Brexit. Our decision to leave the EU broke like a tidal wave over the devolution deal and looked as if it might sink it. George was gone, along with his driving ambition for devolution, and the new man in charge was a power hungry centraliser. But with no other guidance from the government, Sheffield City Region pushed on, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.
Derbyshire County Council became the darkest cloud on the horizon. In fear of losing the money and assets of the largest town in the county, it has called for a judicial review of Chesterfield’s decision making process. This is the storm that could wreck the deal.
Government are likely to continue the roll out of devolution to Sheffield City Region, even as others fall by the wayside. The North East have rejected their deal and the West & North Yorkshire deals appear to be stalled. What might bring the Sheffield deal to its knees is the loss of Chesterfield as a core council.
If the Derbyshire Council request for a judicial review succeeds and Chesterfield has to withdraw from the ability to vote for the City Region Mayor, all bets are off. Julie Dore, Leader of Sheffield City Council, said on Wednesday 7 September, in a response to my question, that any substantial change, including any council dropping out of the core group, would cause them to review the deal.
This does not mean they would scupper the deal, but, bearing in mind that a reasonable ‘geography’ was one of the Council’s red line issues during the debates in Council, it’s hard to believe they would blatantly ignore such a significant change to the basis of the deal.
Sheffield’s devolution deal is not yet sunk, but it’s taking on some serious water. How long the legal challenge will delay matters is unknown and the lack of clear direction from central government is not helping. Can the Secretary of State put this agreement before Parliament before the legal challenge is satisfied? Will Sheffield scupper the deal if Chesterfield falls overboard? Will there be a mayoral election in May?