Devolution is set to come to Sheffield City Region.
History was made when Chancellor George Osborne visited the city last month to sign an in-principle deal with South Yorkshire leaders.
But there are still many questions and deep cynicism about the deal, not least about the forcing of a directly- elected mayor on the region in return for £900 million over 30 years and extra powers.
Local people have not and will not get a say on whether they want a mayor, only who they want it to be in an election in 2017 – despite the fact Sheffield people already voted no to the idea of a city mayor, although that was a different model.
Last week a call for a referendum on plans for the mayor from the Sheffield Green party was rejected by other councillors – and concerns about the proposals, or the detail of them, have also been raised by politicians cross-party.
But how could devolution – which by definition means the transfer of powers from Government departments in Whitehall to a regional administration – potentially make a difference to ordinary people in the region?
It is difficult to tell, and the documents about the deal are peppered with impenetrable jargon. Regional leaders believe one example of how devolution has already benefited the region is in the creation of 4,000 apprenticeships and 2,000 training places as part of the City Deal devolution three years ago.
It is hoped more businesses will become involved in apprenticeships when the city region has more funding to use.
Two key areas where power is being devolved include locally-run employment programmes and control over college or training provider funding to make sure provision, including careers advice, is based on employer need.
“I probably wouldn’t have known what devolution was before I got involved with this,” said Peter Storey, of Sheffield firm Trade Plumbing Direct. But now it makes sense that cities can be in control of their own affairs because they know where the skills gaps are.”
The firm won a large contract to install gas smart meters across Sheffield and needed staff to deliver it, but the qualification was not available in the region.
Through Skills Made Easy, part of the city deal to link businesses with potential apprentices, the business has worked to launch a course with Sheffield College. There are now 16 apprentices at the firm which will hopefully soon be doubled.
Former apprentice Peter, aged 42, of Marsh Lane, near Eckington, added: “Basically we had to set up a course that didn’t exist.
“Smart metering is the biggest thing to happen to the gas industry since the 1970s so we knew there was going to be a skills shortage and thought we best get some people trained up.
“So we have worked together and the college is probably one of the first in the country to have this course running. Without this we would have had nobody in Sheffield trained.”
Bosses at The Showroom independent cinema in Sheffield have also used Skills Made Easy to secure funding for its four apprentices and won best newcomer employer at the Yorkshire and the Humber final of the National Apprenticeship Awards.
General manager Julie Simpson said: “There’s been different pots of funding at a national level that I have tried to access. But with the time it takes, by the time you have filled everything in the Government has changed the rules – I’ve wasted quite a lot of time over the years.
“The team we deal with now is based in Crookes which is 10 minutes away. It is no trouble for them to come and see us for a coffee.
“This is one example of how devolution can work, with local people being able to make decisions.”
Other areas included in the devolution deal are:
Franchised bus services in the combined authority area will be under the control of the mayor, subject to consultation, and a Buses Bill to be introduced in Parliament.
It will help to introduce smart ticketing across all local forms of transport such as bus, tram and train.
A key route network of local authority roads will be the responsibility of the mayor, and managed and maintained by the combined authority.
HOUSING AND PLANNING
Development on ‘strategic sites’ in the Sheffield City Region will be supported through creating Mayoral Development Corporations – bodies charged with the urban development of an area.
The directly elected mayor will also have the power to be consulted on planning applications of major importance
TRADE AND INVESTMENT
An export plan will be agreed between the city region and UK Trade and Investment HQ to allow the region more flexibility over issues such as mid-sized business schemes or different products.
Relevant trade statistics data will also be provided to the combined authority to assist with understanding the region’s export market.
Expert advice and support will be offered by the Government to the city region to support the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, centred around the Advanced Manufacturing Park.
The work would back a plan for a science and innovation audit to understand the region’s strengths in those areas and how to capitalise on them.
The combined authority is also expected to bring forward ‘ambitious proposals’ to enhance the innovation district, which has been compared to a next-generation Silicon Valley.
In Doncaster, the town could become a training hub to provide skills needed for infrastructure projects, through the new National College for High Speed Rail.
BUSINESS GROWTH AND SUPPORT
Business support programmes could be delivered locally from April 2017.
A joint programme aimed at driving the commercial rollout of ultrafast broadband will be agreed while the combined authority will be able to reinvest in creative solutions to supply broadband to the last five per cent of people who do not have it.
Extra enterprise zones will be created, or existing ones extended, subject to bidding rounds.