Devolution delays

BUSINESS VIEW: A £900m devolution deal for Sheffield City Region has on the table for nearly two years. But Andrew Hulse, of chartered accountants UHY Hacker Young, says political power play is delaying investment and putting prosperity at risk.
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THE COALITION government of 2010-2015 theorised that the UK economy would benefit from allowing the industrial centres of the North of England and the Midlands greater autonomy and announced its intention to devolve powers to a number of combined authorities, each with its own elected mayor.

Five of these are loosely termed The Northern Powerhouse and include the Sheffield City Region. A financial incentive was offered to each region; in Sheffield’s case it was £900m paid over 30 years.

The process of setting up these regions has been mired in politics. Greater Manchester was the first to be established but the Leeds project was delayed by power struggles over which towns and cities should be included in the region and how that would affect the respective electoral opportunities of the main political parties. 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.

Screengrab of Yorkshire Post article
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB: Northern Powerhouse minister rules out full Yorkshire devolution (Yorkshire Post)

Ultimately the local governments of North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire decided that their electorate did not want to be part of South Yorkshire.  This decision simplified matters 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 it is suspected that the underlying agenda is the unwillingness of local political leaders to cede any powers to a regional mayor. So in January of this year 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 current offering.

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.

The government has made it clear that no such deal is on offer and West Yorkshire has counted itself out by effecting its own arrangement.

Moreover, a deal for South Yorkshire at this time does not preclude a whole-of-Yorkshire arrangement in the future.

In August, 150 local businessmen signed an open letter to the leaders of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils warning that they were “very concerned about reported further delays”.

Panoramic view of Sheffield city from the amphitheatre

The letter said: “The possible loss to the region of significant funding is clearly of real concern; the damage to the region’s reputation and impact on business confidence is potentially equally or more damaging to our long-term prospects.

“A Yorkshire deal may emerge as a possibility in the years ahead, but surely we will be better placed to be a strong component of that, should it arise, if we push ahead to really strengthen South Yorkshire first.”

The businessmen also said that a local mayor would “enhance our clout as a region”.

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.

Investment of £900m could do a great deal as seed corn for the further development of our region. We should not allow a few politicians to prioritise a sense of local identity over the prosperity of local people.

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