Friday 18 March’s full council meeting voted to ratify the so-called ‘devolution’ deal that first came out of its closet in October last year. Until October, following Manchester jumping first, the deal was in the offing but any details were entirely secret. The deal arrived with a public signing ceremony, with the Chancellor and the […]

Friday 18 March’s full council meeting voted to ratify the so-called ‘devolution’ deal that first came out of its closet in October last year.

Until October, following Manchester jumping first, the deal was in the offing but any details were entirely secret. The deal arrived with a public signing ceremony, with the Chancellor and the four Metro Council leaders of South Yorkshire looking cosy, right before the Party Conference. Despite insistence from the council leaders that this was a proposal, a signed document committed them to agreeing a deal.

From there, with the relentless pressure of Government snapping at their heels, the councils of the Combined Authority acted with undue haste to ensure a deal was done. Questions and concerns from community groups and the public were played down. Issues of a Metro mayor with veto powers and vague and uncertain clauses within the deal seemed minor.

So the process moved on. Discussions continued secretly and until late December the public was omitted from the process. A public consultation did happen over Christmas and New Year, and the results were reported to the City Region mired in positive spin. Then the councils started their ratification processes. Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster voted for the deal in short order. The leader of Barnsley had previously commented publicly that without this deal he would be unable to provide public services in Barnsley in the very near future.

Chesterfield and Bassetlaw agreed to become full constituent members of the City Region, enabling them to vote for the Mayor. Before that Friday meeting, Sheffield City Council Leader Julie Dore’s ‘red lines’ were apparently resolved and the stage was set.

Full council meetings accept public questions. No surprise, I was there. I outlined the litany of broken promises, pledges and targets typical of the last six years of ‘austerity’. The essence of my question was: ‘Does the Council believe it can trust the current Government to honour its commitments with respect to this so-called devolution deal?’

The response from Julie Dore was, essentially, ‘No, we cannot trust the Government.’ The Council will have to work to ensure the commitments are met. If the Government reneges on the promises within the deal, we can withdraw and, until the order approving the deal is before Parliament, there is still time to do so.

The Leader commented that this was the only deal available and that no-one could afford to miss the boat. Without this deal, she said, our city and our economy would fall even further behind the rest of the cities in the country. The Government continues to control the purse strings, so they can cut funding with impunity anyway.

The chamber then went on to debate the deal. The gist of most of the contributions were, ‘It’s the only deal on offer. We know we can’t trust the Government, but any extra money is better than none and we make better decisions locally.’

Nobody acknowledged how the deal enables Government to place some of the responsibility for future austerity in local hands. If the deal falls apart through funding cuts, no matter what the facts of the situation, 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 Parliament and in the media.

So with hearts full of hope and dread in equal measure, the Labour and Lib Dem councillors of Sheffield have agreed to the uncertainty of Osborne’s great experiment. The final act was ratification of the deal by the City Region Combined Authority on 31 March. Or was it? Until the final order is voted on in Parliament later in the year, are there remaining pitfalls to avoid and gains to be made?

@SheffCityNigel

A free panel event on this topic, Devolution: Now What?, will take place on Thursday 19 May at the Central United Reformed Church as part of Festival of Debate. Link

sheffieldcityregiondevolution.org.uk

Nigel Slack