Politicians urged to focus on ‘real deal’ for devolution in Sheffield City Region

Richard Wright is urging politicians to focus on a deal "that is real and on offer.
Richard Wright is urging politicians to focus on a deal "that is real and on offer.
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A Sheffield business chief has urged politicians to sign up to the £900m devolution deal - as the scale of what is at risk becomes clear.

Richard Wright, executive director of Sheffield Chamber, believes the region could remain a place where “land is relatively cheap and employment costs are low” as investors go elsewhere.

His comments came after South Yorkshire leaders postponed a decision until September so Barnsley and Doncaster can “explore other options,” including Yorkshire-wide devolution.

The Government has consistently said there is no other deal on the table, although Barnsley leader Sir Steve Houghton says ministers have suggested otherwise in private conversations.

But even if it were suddenly given the greenlight - and a dozen West and South Yorkshire politicians all agreed to it - it is believed elections for a Yorkshire mayor could not be held until May 2019 at the earliest.

Two combined authorities - Sheffield City Region and West Yorkshire - would have to be dissolved and one mayoral combined authority created. It is understood this would either need parliamentary approval or new legislation.

Or, if the two combined authorities continued under one elected mayor, new legislation would be required.

The process would take at least a year, based on how long it took to establish Sheffield City Region’s combined authority. And it would involve untangling local arrangements, including those around transport and funding.

And it would be fighting for attention at a time when the Government is pre-occupied by Brexit negotiations.

Meanwhile, areas that elected a ‘metro mayor’ in May, including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, would be three years down the road.

Only yesterday, the government confirmed plans for a second devolution deal in the West Midlands. Mayor Andy Street is expected to ask for more funding, as well as local control over the £100-million-a-year skills budget and powers to build more homes on unused land.

Mr Street also has plans to use devolved cash to establish an infrastructure fund set to attract private sector investment.

Sheffield City Region has been offered £30m-a-year for 30 years in return for an elected mayor.

Mr Wright said: “In reality, if we don’t join the race to the top we join the race to the bottom.

“If we aren’t seen as being in the race to the top, people will not invest here and create higher level jobs and we will remain a region where land is relatively cheap and employment costs are low.

“We won’t have higher skilled people here because they will have moved to where things are happening.

“How can it be better for the people of Doncaster or Barnsley or anybody else to turn down something that is real and on offer for the uncertainty of a nonexistent, hypothetical deal?

“Why would doing a South Yorkshire Deal preclude us from doing a Yorkshire one in the future anyway?”