The Sheffield City Region devolution deal hangs in the balance following local disputes, a high court case, and the withdrawal of two councils.

Every city region that accepts a devolution deal has faced teething problems, but none compare to those laid at the door of the Sheffield City Region.

The region was due to elect its mayor in May 2017, but that was postponed until May 2018 following a visit to the High Court; more on that later.

This uncertainty has led public figures in the region to question whether this deal will go ahead.

Dr Alan Billings, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, said: “At present, there are no confirmed plans for a city region mayor.”

Sheffield City Region
Dr. Alan Billings. Credit: Yorkshire and the Humber Labour.

With the dawn of the metro mayors, the PCCs are in an odd position.

They can either carry on as usual, alongside the new mayors, or merge their role with the mayor and create a single entity.

The latter of these options was taken by Greater Manchester and London.

However, this option is exactly that, optional, the PCC can continue to oversee policing regardless of what the new mayor wants.

In the case of the Sheffield City Region, Dr. Billings has dismissed this option, saying: “There are no plans to do what has happened in Manchester.

“This was comparatively easy to do in Manchester because local authority and police boundaries were the same and local authorities were already working closely together.”

Dr Billings went on to praise the model of having a PCC and a mayor represent the same electorate, saying: “Both PCC and mayor are directly accountable to their electorates, so have a similar accountability.

“Having elections for each, however, enables the electorate to make different choices, should they wish, between candidates standing for different parties, or as independents.

“It extends democratic choice.”

However, this is a drop of tranquillity in the sea of uncertainty that has surrounded the Sheffield City Region.

Two of the member councils have pulled out of the devolution deal and put the future of the whole devolution deal in jeopardy.

The original membership of the Sheffield City Region

Bassetlaw District Council, led by Cllr Simon Greaves, has levelled several grievances at the proposed deal.

Cllr. Greaves said: “When we started the process of applying for Constituent Membership of the City Region, I made it clear that this was because it was in Bassetlaw’s best interests.

Sheffield City Region
Cllr. Simon Greaves. Credit: Bassetlaw Council.

“Devolution was a flagship Government policy, with the support of the Prime Minister and the patronage of the Chancellor and the Treasury.”

However, the Bassetlaw leader believes that the EU referendum, in addition to there being a new PM, Chancellor and Secretary of State for Local Government, has left them hanging in the wind, adding: “We now have a Government in disarray, a real coalition of chaos, a delayed Queen’s Speech and very difficult Brexit negotiations they need to crack on with.

“If policies like Devolution were on the backburner before, they’ll be pretty much extinguished now.”

Another concern is the implementation of ‘London style planning powers’, with the mayor monopolising planning decisions.

Cllr. Greaves said: “This was never in the deal that I signed up to, though I note that every deal that has now been made across the Country has seen a Mayor emerge with these powers.

“We are not London, and one of our key democratic functions in Bassetlaw is that local Councillors are accountable to their communities for the planning decisions they make.”

Cllr. Greaves also raised democratic objections to the deal.

Instead of receiving two votes, like a unitary council, Bassetlaw would receive only one, with the other going to Nottinghamshire County Council.

This is despite six out of seven of Nottinghamshire County Council’s District Councils not being part of the devolution deal.

Cllr. Greaves said : “I challenged these arrangements at an early stage, and am disappointed that there has been no change – effectively leaving us with a weaker voice than the other constituent members of the Combined Authority.”

However, this is not the only example of a county council hindering this devolution deal.

Remember that court case from earlier, that was filed by Derbyshire County Council, the upper-tier of Chesterfield Borough Council, the other council to pull out of the deal.

Sheffield City Region
The Royal Courts of Justice, which house the High Court. Credit: Rafa Esteve

The County Council argued that the people of the Sheffield City Region had not been properly consulted on the deal, or asked their opinion on whether it should go ahead.

The court agreed and ordered the mayoral election to be put back a year to allow time for consultation to take place.

Sheffield City Region
Cllr. Anne Western. Credit: Derbyshire County Council.

A verdict welcomed by the then Labour Leader of Derbyshire County Council, Councillor Anne Western, who called it “a victory for fairness and common sense.”

Following the case, the Sheffield City Region declared that they would hold a referendum to gauge their residents support for the deal.

Then, bizarrely, the County Council, now led by Conservative Councillor Barry Lewis, decided to hold its own referendum, for those living under Chesterfield Borough Council.

This decision to ask the same people the same question twice was the final straw for Cllr. Tricia Gilby, the leader of Chesterfield Borough Council, who said: “It would have put people through a lot of pain for, in effect, no gain.

Tricia Gilby
Cllr. Tricia Gilby. Credit: Chesterfield Council

“The referendum plans by Councillor Lewis are completely unjustified, especially when Derbyshire County Council admits itself it still needs to find £80 million to balance its books due to Tory austerity.”

This power struggle goes back further, with Cllr. Gilby saying: “Whatever the political colour of the County Council, the County Council always likes to see itself being the senior partner in local government across the whole of Derbyshire.”

Cllr. Gilby went on to say that their approach bordered on: “You can do what you like, until we don’t want you to do it.”

Sheffield City Region
Church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield. Credit: Charlesdrakew

However, I asked Cllr. Gilby whether it was not worth biting the bullet on paying for the extra referendum, in exchange for the investment that Chesterfield would receive from the deal; estimated at £35m.

Cllr. Gilby’s response was that the residents of Chesterfield would have voted against joining the deal in the referendum, thus making their membership untenable.

The Council leader argued that the County Council’s “emotional” plea to stay tied to Derbyshire would have trumped Chesterfield’s more rational, economic argument.

Cllr. Gilby said: “That’s no disrespect to the public, but as a psychologist, I understand that the emotional holds sway over the rational.

“That’s just the way human beings are.”

We are yet to see whether the departure of Bassetlaw and Chesterfield will spell doom for the devolution deal.

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