The passion created by the Scottish independence referendum in September saw the highest ever turnout (85 per cent) in a British election. It sparked a similar discussion about the devolution of powers throughout the English regions, particularly the North.
However, the so-called devolution deal announced on December 12 avoided all opportunity for debate. It appears the government were desperate to agree a deal before the Autumn Statement, allowing no time for public consultation.
It meant the decision to set Sheffield onto this uncharted path was taken by a handful of council leaders, local MPs such as Nick Clegg, and other members of the Whitehall political elite. Plans made in such haste are rarely free of unforeseen problems.
It looks like Osborne was offering a bribe of small amounts of money if an elected mayor was accepted. Sheffield voters said no to elected mayors decisively in a democratic vote in 2012. Rejection of that plan has stripped any meat from the bone being thrown.
Clegg is championing this deal to show he’s ‘thumping the table’ for Sheffield, but let’s take a closer look at what has been announced: Powers to develop a card system similar to London’s Oyster, but no control over bus contracts; a ‘greater say’ on the sale of public sector land; slightly easier access to funding for large house building projects and control over a fragile adult skills budget.
We need more control of areas such as planning, education and social services and more money to carry them out properly.
As Richard Wright, executive director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, commented, it is very possible that all the government is devolving is responsibility for delivering cuts as part of central government’s austerity agenda. No extra money has been announced. Greater control over a small, centrally controlled budget could be used to shift blame for cuts to local leaders.
An alternative to this plan and other similar plans across the country has been put forward. The Green Party, Labour, Plaid Cymru and the SNP have backed a Constitutional Convention where all regions across the UK participate in drawing up radical proposals for redistributing power away from Westminster.