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Lack of a devolution template a double-edged sword, says SCR chair

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 16

Cllr Sir Stephen Houghton, chair of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority and leader of Barnsley Council, talks to PSE about how work is progressing on the region’s £900m devolution deal.

Last year PSE reported that Cllr Sir Stephen Houghton, and the Sheffield City Region LEP chair, sent a letter to the chancellor with an unusual clause: “That this [devolution] deal, because of its timing, secures ‘first mover advantage’ for the Sheffield City Region and that any subsequent devolution deals with other parts of the country will be less materially advantageous.” 

Several months on since the Sheffield devolution deal was approved, Sir Stephen  told us that the process is now very much underway and is a case of filling in the details, and that civil servants are now talking to officers about what the £900m deal means in reality. 

During the summer, the deal will now be formalised in a ‘scheme’ which will set out how a new mayoral combined authority will work, and how the mayor’s powers will operate. Formal consultation on the scheme will take place from 27 June. 

“The introduction of a mayor is a huge change, politically,” said Sir Stephen. “That is going OK. However, we had to wait before we could get into the details while the other devolution deals were done. In a sense you wouldn’t start from here, but that is the way the deal works. We are having to get that into place. That work will be done by September, and providing everything goes OK, funding should start in October.” 

Iterative process 

The combined authority’s initial view was that the deal could have been done without a mayor, and this is still the case. “But no mayor, no deal,” said Sir Stephen, “and we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to take more influence over what we do, and particularly the extra investment.” 

He added that government has been “fluid” about devolution and what can be included because “more is on offer if you ask for it”. However, he noted that any “big things” would have to wait for a further devolution deal. 

“So if we wanted to look at health, as Manchester has, for example, that would be another deal to be done,” said Sir Stephen. “But devolution continues to develop and grow as it goes along. It is very much an iterative process.” 

The combined authority is pushing for certain changes to the current deal: “We are pressuring for greater changes in some of the things we’ve already asked for. On the finance side, for a start, to change the 60:40 capital revenue split – so it is 100% revenue. That gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of what we can do with the money.” 

Double-edged sword 

Sir Stephen added that the “fluid” situation has, however, been a bit of a double-edged sword. 

“It is a double-edged sword, isn’t it, that the government is saying it is up to you [what you want in the devolution deal], and we’re saying ‘what is it you want for us?’ The advantage is that there is no template, so we can determine this. But because there is no template it takes a lot more working out about what is and isn’t possible,” he said. 

As part of the process of approving the devolution deal, Sir Stephen added that two non-constituent members – Chesterfield and Bassetlaw councils – have signalled their intention to join the combined authority.

“We are doing a governance review to bringing them in,” he said. “This will take place over the summer, and the minister will, hopefully, take a positive view in September to bring those two councils in as members.” 

Sir Stephen explained that as part of Sheffield’s devolution process, the business community were keen to make sure they didn’t get left out. 

sheffield town hall

“The balance of power has been changing from local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), which were set up five years ago, to mayors,” he said. “What we have done in the city-region, as part of our decision-making structures, is make sure that private sector board members are represented and, in some cases, get a vote. 

“Hopefully, they’ll see that we are being inclusive. In the end, it is not about voting. It is about reaching a consensus which we’ve, generally, managed to do.” 

He added that, in the end, devolution will only work through collaboration. However, he did say there is a danger for LEPs because of the changing political climate. 

“You could see LEPs, rather than being integrated into that decision-making structure, becoming another advisory body – but no more than that,” said Sir Stephen. “I think it is up to each devolution deal, each combined authority, how they feel LEPs can best be integrated. We’ve certainly done that with ours.”

This week, Cornwall, the first county to win a devolution deal, said it is making progress in its devolution project overall, but the status of several aspects of the deal are uncertain.

A report to the audit committee, said: “The nine theme summaries show that progress remains largely positive; nonetheless, as is expected with projects of this magnitude, there are some elements of the deal themes where the complexity and absence of a blueprint have understandably stymied progress.

“In those areas, workstream leads are focused on working with their counterparts in the Civil Service to ensure progress accords with the respective implementation plans.”

Earlier this year, Lord Kerslake, a former CEO of Sheffield City Council and head of the Civil Service, warned  that devolution implementation in the UK was ‘piecemeal and incoherent’.

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Ashley Baxter   27/06/2016 at 14:44

Here in Lincolnshire we have a similar offer of "No mayor, no deal" and our mayor would be responsible for an enormous area stretching from the Humber to the Wash. It is ridiculous to imagine such a person could ever be truly functional, let alone accountable over such a geographic area. Lincs County is currently compiling a very skewed consultation with the obvious intent of showing that this is 'what people want'. It's disgraceful.

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