Devolution for South Yorkshire. Where are we now?

4 August 2017

Only a few years ago the Tory government of Cameron and Osborne recognised that the UK economy would benefit from allowing the industrial centres of the North of England greater autonomy and paid us the compliment of calling us the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. The Government’s intention was to devolve a number of combined authorities, each with its own elected mayor. Five of these, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley, the Leeds city region, the Liverpool city region and the Sheffield city region are in the North of England. A financial incentive was offered to each region; in Sheffield’s case it was £900m paid over 30 years.

As with most political projects the process of setting up these regions has not been plain sailing. Greater Manchester was the first to be established but the Leeds project was delayed by political squabbles and power struggles over which towns and cities should be included in the region and how that would affect the respective opportunities of the Conservative and Labour Parties of having their own candidate elected. Leeds, now known as West Yorkshire, has nevertheless proceeded. Sheffield, probably better termed South Yorkshire, is still held up by political wrangling.

In October 2015 the Sheffield city region became the second combined authority to sign a devolution deal with the then chancellor, George Osborne, but subsequently the mayoral elections were postponed due to the failure to settle the issue over the inclusion of Chesterfield and Bassetlaw in the Sheffield City Region. A High Court judge ruled that there had been insufficient consultation with the local people over South Yorkshire’s plans to annex parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. This is where the issues of local identity really started to play a part. Ultimately the local governments of North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire decided that their electorate did not want to be part of South Yorkshire and pulled out.  However regrettable, though understandable, their decision may have been, it did at least simplify the issue and should have left the way clear for South Yorkshire to continue alone, bringing its major towns, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster together into one devolved region. But it seems that regional identity can be fragmented into ever smaller packages. Views have been expressed that the independent-minded people of Doncaster and Barnsley are reluctant to become part of ‘Greater Sheffield’, but of course it is suspected that the underlying agenda is the reluctance of local political leaders to cede any of their authority to a regional mayor. So the intervention of Caroline Flint, Labour MP for the Don Valley, with her proposal that a Yorkshire-wide deal should be explored was a welcome distraction for those seeking to thwart the deal. Ms Flint said “Maybe there is a regional way to bring the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber together because if we were given the powers through devolution I think we could do a great job. With five million people it would be amazing the things we could do. There is nothing stronger than the Yorkshire brand – it’s one of the best things we have to promote our region.”

Caroline Flint’s proposal has also been looked on favourably by Conservative MPs and councillors in Yorkshire but for different reasons. They believe that the inclusion of North Yorkshire in the region would give them a better chance of winning a mayoral election. So the question of regional identity is very susceptible to being diverted to serve the electoral needs of local politicians.

Now the leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster have stated that they will not approve the South Yorkshire Deal – and its £900m subsidy until the idea of a whole-of –Yorkshire devolution project has been fully explored. This has to be a red herring. West Yorkshire, with its strong Labour Party leanings, has already rejected the proposal and has now effected its own arrangement, and the Government has made it clear that no such deal is on offer. So the only purpose in exploring it can be to delay or undermine the South Yorkshire option.

South Yorkshire is a great place to work and to do business but it’s not just about Sheffield. Major international companies are increasingly recognising our skill base. The Advanced Manufacturing Park (actually in Rotherham) has already attracted Rolls-Royce and will soon welcome Boeing and McLaren. Our airport (in Doncaster) is expanding and introducing new routes, and we can at last look forward to our high-speed rail link to London. £900 million pounds may not be a lot of money – a good deal less than the Conservative Party’s incentive for Northern Ireland – but it could do a great deal as seed corn for the further development of our region. We should not allow a few politicians to prioritise their own ambitions, or even their sense of local identity, over the prosperity of local people.

To read more about this subject and to hear the opinions of local business people represented by Sheffield Chamber of Commerce click here. If you have any questions with regard to this blog, please contact me.