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First mover advantage: A city-region getting it right

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

PSE talks to those responsible for Sheffield City Region’s “ingenious” and bold demands in its devolution bid. Luana Salles reports.

“We see devolution as a journey, not a single deal,” says Cllr Sir Stephen Houghton, chair of Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, leader of Barnsley Council, and the mastermind behind the letter sent to chancellor George Osborne in early October that contained an eye-catching and significant clause. 

The letter, signed by Houghton and the Sheffield City Region LEP chair, sandwiches an unusual request between seven other more conventional proposals: that no other devolution package would be more materially advantageous than that of Sheffield, with every future deal granted to other areas being automatically explored with the city-region and retrospectively applied to its deal. 

Sheffield City Region was, after Greater Manchester, the second area to sign up to the chancellor’s devolution programme, despite 38 other regions showing an interest. Soon after Sheffield closed the deal, the North East, the Tees Valley, the West Midlands and Liverpool followed suit. 

Houghton told PSE: “The government wanted us to sign, we were keen to sign, but what do you get from moving first? What’s the advantage of being first up? Obviously, one of the concerns was that potentially someone comes up with a good idea that we haven’t thought of, and we didn’t want to lose out. 

“So, the trick would be then to say ‘right, should we want it, we get the option to do that as well’ – which will then make sure we don’t get disadvantaged by going early. 

“It was to say to the chancellor, ‘look, we’ll be first up, with first mover advantage on certain things’, but also making sure that we don’t get overtaken – because we’re anxious to keep leading the field.” 

‘Ingenious approach’ 

Looking at it from this angle perhaps explains the government’s welcoming reaction to the decidedly bold request. Communities secretary Greg Clark MP, for example, let slip during a Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry on 1 December that the proposal was “exactly the sort of ingenuity” he’d hoped for, and that he “expects very much” this approach to continue. 

But unfortunately for Sheffield City Region authorities, that was the first and last they’ve heard of it as of yet. “I’m hoping that it will be agreed. If it’s ingenious, then that says to me that the government’s prepared to talk to us about it, so that’s really positive,” Sir Stephen told us. 

The city-region has only recently been getting into detailed discussions, given the chancellor’s busy agenda. Discussions will run throughout December and January, with councils being asked to ratify the deal in February. 

But neither Houghton nor Clark expect the city-region to stop there. “I’m absolutely certain that Sheffield will, as it demonstrates its ability to make use of the powers, come back and ask for more,” the communities secretary said during the committee’s inquiry. “Everyone looks very closely at what is being negotiated in those places, and because this is not a one-off final chance, people do come back.”

Ever-growing package 

Indeed, Houghton views the initial package as a first-step economic deal. “We will then look to see how we can get even more economic powers and hopefully investment into the city-region, and obviously we’ll be looking at what other wider powers can help us maintain not just the economy, but public services at some point in the future. That’s something I know we’ll consider.” 

But it may not be all smooth sailing for the city-region, which has recently launched a public consultation on the measures. While Houghton isn’t predicting any issues with the package itself, he suspects they will get concerns about the contentious issue of a mayor. “From our perspective, [the question] was always ‘is the package big enough to warrant the mayor?’ We’re saying it is. If the consultation says ‘no package, no mayor’ that’s different; if it says ‘we want the package but we don’t want the mayor’, then we’ve got a choice to make. That’s the conundrum that we have.” 

PSE will report on the feedback to the consultation in our next edition, but Houghton expects residents and stakeholders to have ambitions on a similar scale to the politicians. “I think people will want a bigger deal. From what I’m hearing now, people think we could go further with this – so there may be encouragement for us to take this on even more.”


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