A recent Radical Hope conference in Sheffield brought much food for thought in terms of campaign priorities for the city. Joined by MPs, MEPs, activists, academics and local people interested in a fairer future the discussions focused around what should be embedded in the Fairness Commission’s work and priorities for the next few years.
A central theme of the day was the devolution deal currently on the table for Sheffield City Region and its implications for the local economy, democracy and our ability build a fairer city. Unlock Democracy Chair Vicky Seddon reminded participants that devolution by its nature cannot be imposed. She questioned whether we what we are being offered is real devolution or just a shift of power from Westminster to local elites.
The lack of consultation is deeply worrying. The Manchester deal was a surprise to many and was not the result of proper public consultation. There has been no substantive consultation on this side of the Pennines in preparation for the Sheffield City Region deal. A recent pilot consultation run by the Electoral Reform Society showed what might be possible but, given that it resulted in a very different and more ambitious proposal from that offered by Osborne, may indicate why he has avoided consultation. This has bred some discontent in the North but not enough to stop the deals or unify public consensus around alternative options. There remains no agreement even among political activists over what form devolution should take - something that Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North, has reflected on more than once.
Osborne’s choice to offer incompatible deals to different areas appears to be deliberately designed to pitch one region against another. The reform of local government finance is a case in point. The announcement at Tory Party conference that authorities will be able to keep all their business rates to enable ‘bold steps’ to boost business growth received mixed reviews. It is still unclear whether regional disparities will be addressed through a redistribution mechanism, without which regional inequality will skyrocket.
The proposed governance arrangements for the Sheffield City Region are to many unnecessarily confusing. The Region is to be made up of nine local authority areas, only four of which are in South Yorkshire. The other five are in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Despite the Region being intended as a single unit the elected Mayor will have authority only over the four South Yorkshire authority areas, and will only be voted for by voters in those areas. Doncaster in effect will end up with two mayors – a city mayor and a Region mayor. If this sounds confusing on paper it could be even more confused in practice and may not lead to the vibrant economic region we’ve been promised.
So where does this leave us? The devolution deals whilst imperfect do create an opportunity to talk about devolution more broadly. The need to resolve frustrations in Scotland, Wales and even England as EVEL proposals are debated adds even greater weight to the question of what devolution is for and what it is supposed to address. Sheffield council and others are absolutely right to conclude that while these may not be the deals we would have chosen they are the only ones on the table – devolution sadly cannot wait for the election of a Labour government.
What we now need to do as soon as possible is put some bones on John Trickett’s Constitutional Convention and be clear on its purpose and outcomes. Dan Jarvis in his speech to IPPR North recently articulated the best political steer on this: the ‘devolution debate represents perhaps the greatest opportunity to remake the State and empower people for a generation’. Given this challenge we should take the opportunity to look at House of Lords reform, PR, a Bill of Rights and reform of voter registration - decoupling it from the boundary review. Arguments over regions, mayors and business rates may seem far removed from the more emotive arguments over tax credits and benefits but this too is an opportunity to create opportunity and resilience in our communities. Devolution is our agenda and our ground. It’s time to reclaim it.
Guest blogger; Jane Thomas and Mike Bucklesy, Sheffield for Democracy