When I woke up to the news on Friday morning that Sheffield City Region was to get a devolution deal with the government with an elected mayor, I was excited and disappointed all at the same time. Excited that Sheffield had got its act together and jumped the queue but disappointed about the mayor. Largely I’m positive though as I think it’s about time that Sheffield moved out of the shadows of the other big cities, but it does create some interesting complications. This post is looking at some of those but is also my initial instinctive feelings about it all.
Devolution within England has always been controversial, not so much about the principle, but at what level it is done. As I’ve written before, I’ve always had a scepticism about the benefits that a Yorkshire Regional Assembly would bring to my home city of Sheffield. My heart loves the idea of a single body that represents the county in which I grew up, but my head tells me that as far as Sheffield is concerned it makes more sense to have something more focused on the one city and to arrange economic and transport development around the city and its hinterland, much of which falls outside Yorkshire. This post however isn’t intended to go over that argument again but instead it’s to look at the latest proposals and the complications they create in terms of lopsided devolution within their own city region.
The new devolution deal gives Sheffield City Region and its directly-elected mayor a large number of new powers over areas such as transport management, policy and spending, economic development, work benefits and post 19 skills. Whilst many of these are about co-operating with central government to work out what would suit the region best, rather than necessarily a whole new way of doing things, it’s a start. For me the most exciting part of it though is what it could lead to in terms of greater powers, rather than necessarily what’s on offer now. It’s not as big a deal as Greater Manchester got, but it’s a start and I imagine it will gain a momentum that will inevitably lead to further powers. These powers however apply to the area of the combined authority, which is formally only Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley. Whilst there are a further five local authority areas that form the Sheffield City Region, only the four I’ve named are legally ‘constituent members’ which means the powers of the combined authority only cover those. This creates a lopsided deal that gives lots of powers to one bit of the city region and less to the other.
If you look through the devolution document it is littered with phrases such as “The directly elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority will be responsible for a devolved and consolidated local transport budget for the area of the Combined Authority (i.e. the areas of the constituent councils)” which means it only applies to the four authorities of South Yorkshire not the whole of the city region. This means that one of the new powers the region gets relating to smart-ticketing will only apply to South Yorkshire and not to those other parts of the region for whom they will be as, if not more, beneficial, and perhaps lead to transport authorities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire not wanting to invest as much in those areas or instead arguing with South Yorkshire over any ideas it comes up with that they could all pragmatically decide to implement across the whole area. Despite this there are other powers that sound more inclusive by not referring just to constituent councils but to the region as a whole such as “Powers over strategic planning, including the responsibility to create a spatial framework for the city region and to chair the Sheffield City Region Joint Assets Board.” This would mean that the mayor had powers over an area that never voted for it. Perhaps the new deal with encourage those authorities who are classed as ‘non-constituent’ to vote to become ‘constituent’ members but it doesn’t seem clear if this is something they are currently considering. If they did however it would not only make everything more joined up but it will also mean they get to choose a mayor who will have a big influence on the future economic prospects of their area whether they are constituent members or not. Somehow the new mayor will need to show that this doesn’t lead to the region becoming dysfunctional if it wanted to gain further powers in the future.
One area in which all parts of the region participate fully is the Local Economic Partnership (LEP). All nine local authorities are part of this body which is actually led by the private sector rather than local authorities, and whilst separate from the combined authority is inherently linked and more or less perceived externally as one body. The new mayor will also sit on this which emphasises how much all of these areas are part of the same economic region and attracting people to invest locally is something for all areas and outside investors won’t really see much difference between the Advanced Manufacturing Park (actually in Rotherham), Markham Vale (in Chesterfield) and Robin Hood Airport (in Doncaster) when one of the attractions will be being part of the Sheffield set-up. I know I write as someone who lives in Sheffield itself, but one of the issues that I think has stymied the area is the unwillingness to embrace the Sheffield name. Whilst I know the people of towns such as Rochdale or Stockport for example are very proud of the distinctiveness of their towns and hate being lumped in with Manchester, I have detected a general acceptance from those who live there that as Manchester is the main urban centre for their region and has a generally positive reputation that they are a part of the brand that is Manchester. In South Yorkshire, and whilst I think most surrounding areas do see Sheffield as the main urban centre, the other towns feel a lot less attached to it. This may partly be because Sheffield’s brand and reputation as somewhere to look up to isn’t as strong as Manchester’s, or perhaps it’s because when you go between towns in South Yorkshire you pass through countryside rather than it being a continuous urban area. Really though Sheffield as a name should be a lot more powerful and needs to be embraced if everyone is to benefit. In the city’s industrial height, the ‘Made in Sheffield’ name was known throughout the world as a sign of quality, and Sheffield remains to this day the only city in the UK whose name has legal protections which means that companies wishing to use it need extra permission from the government. This should be used to its real potential by the wider region.
Despite my criticism of this lopsided bit of devolution I am still really impressed it is going ahead. I don’t like directly-elected mayors and I would be a little more relaxed about the idea if the mayor also had a small authority alongside to scrutinise decisions and hold reviews in to the policies that the mayor is or could be pursuing just as happens in London. But the argument about the mayor as a model is a whole other post. What I thing is good about this devolution deal though is that I hope it will lead Sheffield to become a bit more pushy and able to be confident about raising its profile more.
As someone who was raised in Sheffield and has lived here most of my life, I get very frustrated when, despite being England’s fourth largest city at around 560,000 people and a city region of around 1.8 million people, people largely ignore the city when they think of the major cities of the country. Many people have no idea that the city is so large or that it isn’t just some scruffy rust bucket in the North of England whose best days are behind it. Whilst this again is enough for a whole other post, I think this perception (or perhaps a lack of a perception) is due to a whole variety of factors which includes things as diverse as an economy that was centred on industries that suffered hugely in the 80s recession, but also not being a base for a regional TV station, not having a metropolitan county named after it, being officially the second largest city in its government region not the first, having two football clubs that haven’t been at the top of football for some time, and many other things. But if there’s one thing that working in Manchester has taught me it’s that Manchester is a city that has a confident swagger and pride that Sheffield doesn’t even come close to. I hope that the introduction of the devolution deal and the mayor will lead to a confidence to talk up the city rather than the main message that has come out of the council in the last few years of just how much the government is giving us a raw deal. All councils think they get a raw deal from government, but constantly talking about it gives the impression that we are an impoverished backwater, and whilst I would never deny that poverty is a problem in our region, taking the powers that this devolution deal gives us means we can get on and do more about it ourselves.
I have always loved Sheffield and hopefully this deal will give the leading voices in the city region the confidence to talk up how much they love it too.