COMMENT: Sheffield City Region isn’t working...let’s move on to Plan B

Sheffield Chamber chief Richard Wright. Picture: Andrew Roe
Sheffield Chamber chief Richard Wright. Picture: Andrew Roe
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We have got what we feared.

An elected mayor with no mandate and an extremely uncertain future only four weeks into a job (whatever that was going to eventually be). And all because our political leaders cannot all honour a commitment and agree a way of moving forward.

It's time to move on from a devolution deal which isn't working for region, Richard Wright says.

It's time to move on from a devolution deal which isn't working for region, Richard Wright says.

Business people are pragmatic and practical and quickly acknowledge when things are fundamentally impossible to achieve or the cost is too high.

The LEP will succeed as a coalition of the willing or underdeliver, and I’m afraid we are in the latter territory now.

In reality we have seen the gradual erosion of the Sheffield City Region as a sensible economic entity down to a South Yorkshire devolution deal and probably now to nothing.

Be under no illusions that if anything at all comes out of the current mess it will be a patch up – an illusion – and certainly not something we can build an ambitious future -looking economic strategy on.

It will have no credibility anyway because certain parties were prepared to renege on contractual agreements they made with Government and in my opinion the message that sends is totally unacceptable.

We should discount any salvation from a Yorkshire wide deal in the short term, if at all. As a Chamber our position has always been grab the deal on the table and make it work and then impartially and properly explore options for the future. There are so many questions though.

What is the probability of actually getting 20 local authorities to agree a proposal when the chips are down when Leeds couldn’t even put a devolution deal together when we did ours? Is the Peak District more important to the Sheffield economy than the Yorkshire Moors or Dales?

It’s not long ago since there were a plethora of reports that said the economy was best driven by city regions. Are they suddenly all wrong?

So where do we go from here? The fact is that in many ways we are not doing too badly in Sheffield at the moment. The problem is that leadership is about tomorrow.

It is an absolute certainty that if we don’t do something we will not deliver everything we should in the future and it’s the people who suffer. Social and public services need funding, funding comes from wealth creation, and wealth creation comes from a strong and sustainable economy.

We have to move to Plan B now.

In my opinion we should stop wasting time on trying to achieve the impossible and find a coalition of the willing who can unite around a common and ambitious vision for the future.

From what has happened over the last few years would it be possible to group Sheffield, Rotherham, Chesterfield, Peak District and maybe Bassetlaw around a common economic objective? We all need each other in reality, and we are already working on many projects together like the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, the visitor economy and transport infrastructure. We all benefit from getting connectivity with the rest of the country right, be that midland mainline, HS2, trans Pennine links, or broadband.

I seriously believe that between us we could make the proposal for the M18 innovation corridor happen – probably through a new development corporation (like the London Docklands) with fund raising and planning powers. Its ambitious, its futurelooking, it has risks and opportunities but if it works everybody gains. Of course I would prefer Doncaster Sheffield Airport to be part of that footprint but the only people who would stop that would be Doncaster Local Authority!

Of course we would need all partners to work together to make this happen, be that the business community, public sector, education community or our major health bodies.

I know that all of us regret getting to this point. Every single one of the bodies I have just mentioned wanted the Sheffield City Region to work because they had a vision of the greater good. Plan B need not throw that away.

Lastly we will need the support of Government. Are they prepared to ditch their current objectives after stating things like “You will honour your contract” and actually offering us the best devolution deal (money per person) in the country. Plan B would have to look them squarely in the eye and say “We apologise for what has happened. Some of us were unwilling to deliver on our commitments but the rest of us really want to make things happen. Will you please transfer your support from the original proposal to this.

We will make it happen and it will be a good investment for you?” Always remember that Government is an enabler. We have the responsibility to make it happen. The current system will not make happen what should happen. At best we will underdeliver.

Time for Plan B.

By Richard Wright – Executive Director, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce.