COMMENT: £900m and devolved powers is the only game in town

Let's be clear: there is no '˜Yorkshire deal' for devolution.

Wednesday, 18th January 2017, 1:13 pm
Updated Wednesday, 18th January 2017, 1:17 pm
Sheffield City Region's devolution deal is in confusion

It’s just a dream peddled by a West Yorkshire leader – a place which has so far failed to strike a deal of its own.

The only process locally that is recognised by Government is the one in Sheffield City Region set to bring an extra £900m and a raft of devolved powers in return for an elected mayor.

Investment: Kevin McCabe's office block takes shape near the bus station

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It is the only game in town and it’s being embraced by pragmatic, businessminded cities across the country including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.

So you’re either in the Government’s fast lane – organised and ready for whatever else might come down the track, such as devolved powers and cash from Brussels under Brexit, or you’re not.

Yet last week the leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster – Sir Steve Houghton and Ros Jones CBE – said they were interested in exploring a non-existent ‘Yorkshire deal’, potentially trashing the one they’ve been a key part of for years.

And not just trashing it for them, potentially trashing it for all the members of Sheffield City Region.

Business editor David Walsh

Their shock announcement came after it was revealed mayoral elections – scheduled for May 4 – would be postponed to allow time to re-run a consultation process after the High Court ruled the people of Chesterfield were not properly consulted.

Chesterfield is very keen to be a fully paid-up member of Sheffield City Region and benefit from devolution as the best way to grow the economy and create jobs.

Derbyshire County Council – another place which has failed to strike a devolution deal – launched the judicial review which put the spanner in the works.

At best this could delay the installation of a mayor by up to a year – at worst it could mean the whole structure crumbling.

Investment: Kevin McCabe's office block takes shape near the bus station

You can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth in Rotherham, Chesterfield, Bassetlaw and in Sheffield.

But it’s not just their plans that are in jeopardy, a raft of public and private sector organisations have been banking on devolution to boost economic prosperity, including the chambers, universities and colleges and of course businesses large and small.

Sir Steve and Ros Jones have long been against the idea of an elected mayor – without really saying why – and are keen to seize any chance to have a deal without one. But again, that’s just a dream, the Government has consistently said: ‘no mayor no deal’.

So what’s going on?

Business editor David Walsh

Both towns have benefited from the ‘City Region’ – the private sector-led Local Enterprise Partnership and the Combined Authority of nine council leaders – which has showered money around in recent years.

The Sheffield City Region Investment Fund – worth about £435m including private sector cash – has earmarked tens of millions for infrastructure projects in both boroughs including, in Doncaster, widening the A630, building a Hatfield link road and building the last stage of the road to the airport – worth a total of £29m – as well as improvements to the town centre.

Barnsley’s schemes, for three economic growth corridors at its motorway junctions – two at 36 and one at 37 – come to more than £33m.

Further millions have been ploughed into the Growth Hub, and the little-known Skills Bank, for business development across the entire patch.

City Region members also benefit from being part of a bigger club, having clout in Westminster, the Northern Powerhouse and overseas such as at global property fair MIPIM in Cannes.

What’s not to like?

The regional mayor will be a political appointment, a decision Sheffield Chamber is unhappy about – it is mainly an economic job after all – but in this area that means a member of the Labour party, whoever wins.

So little to fear there either.

Perhaps, then, it is dissatisfaction with something else. Some issue that has divided the region and set leaders against each other at a time when they are supposed to be pulling together.

Could it be HS2?

The decision in June to move the station from Meadowhall to Sheffield city centre and re-route the mainline east has been hugely controversial, with Barnsley and Doncaster campaigning against the move, before ultimate disappointment.

We may never know.

But we do know Barnsley is seeking investors for its £100m town centre redevelopment. It was stalled for years until the council kicked it into life again with £50m of its own money.

Doncaster has its own plans including the giant logistics hub, iPort, hundreds of new homes at Rossington and growth at Doncaster Sheffield Airport in flights and at the huge business park adjacent, Aero Centre Yorkshire.

Imagine what investors would think of towns that trampled agreements and turned their backs on deals. The reputational damage would be huge.

Collaboration means compromise – but look at the rewards.

Partners across Sheffield and Rotherham are in advanced talks with two major hi-tech manufacturers to build factories in the area.

The deals have involved Sheffield University, both councils, the City Region and business. Negotiations can take years.

But the depth of collaboration has created a blueprint that can be used for the future, leaders say.

So I appeal to Sir Steve Houghton and Ros Jones, on behalf of millions of people and thousands of businesses and organisations, join with Sheffield City Region, do the deal.

Benefit from being in an exclusive club. And then, if West Yorkshire organises and gets on board, open merger talks with Leeds City Region about the whole of Yorkshire.

Anything else is just dreaming.