Chancellor George Osborne said there was ‘no need’ for a referendum on a new elected mayor for Sheffield city region after a historic £900m devolution deal was grasped today.
He spoke of putting ‘the power in the Northern Powerhouse’ and it being ‘the moment when local people get a much bigger say over how this area is run and the decisions that affect their lives’.
The in-principle agreement, which includes £30m of funding over 30 years and is ‘immune’ from any spending review so long-term decisions can be made, will hand over powers in areas such as franchised bus services, a key network of roads, college and skills funding plus local employment schemes.
But it also means that the region will have to vote for a new directly elected mayor to oversee those powers in 2017.
In 2012 Sheffield was one of several cities around the country to vote ‘no’ to the idea of replacing local council cabinets with directly elected mayors,
When told that Star readers had asked why an elected mayor was being forced on the region when people did not want an extra tier of Government, Mr Osborne said: “This is very different from what was on offer just a few years ago because then the deal was you have to have some new layer of Government.
“They’re not going to have any powers, it’s going to cost money and nothing is going to come to South Yorkshire as a result of it – and it’s not surprising local people said ‘no thanks’.
“What you’ve got today is a directly elected mayor with new powers, taking decisions that otherwise would be taken in London, and with a big pot of money attached to it – that’s close to a billion pounds to invest in local manufacturing, and jobs and skills here.
“I think local people want that and certainly the people that have been elected to represent local folk do want it and they’ve all signed up to it and we’ve working across all the different political parties to make this happen.
“So I think it is a really big moment and I think we should now get on with it and people can have their say when we have the first elections for this directly elected mayor in 2017.
“We don’t need a referendum because we’ve got the agreement of all the political leaders who themselves have been elected and I think the combination of the money and the powers that would otherwise be taken in London being exercised here, local people taking control of their own destiny, all amounts to a great deal.
“The key thing now is who’s going to be the mayor, what’s their programme for this area, they’ve now got the freedom to put that into effect and people have got the freedom to choose who to do it.”
Mr Osborne visited the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Catcliffe to sign the deal with civic leaders. He described the centre as ‘symbolic’ of the region’s economic potential and said he ‘dropped everything’, understood to include writing his speech to the Conservative party conference in Manchester, to be there.
He said other parts of the country would look at the deal and say Sheffield was ‘blazing a trail’.
When asked if the £900m was just putting cash back in after major funding cuts to the region’s authorities, he added: “Of course, you’ve got to go on making sure you live within your means as a country, we saw what happened when we didn’t seven or eight years ago, but I also want to make sure there are long term budgets for these really long term projects like reviving manufacturing here and that’s what we’re offering today.”
South Yorkshire civic leaders had earlier sat around a table to sign the deal – which came together quickly in the last week as talks intensified.
A handful of workers at the centre also watched.
Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore said negotiations began a year ago and it had been a ‘tense and stressful’ process because it was such a major change to the way the region would be run.
She added: “Most importantly it is bringing power back into the hands of local people – and that’s not just politicians it is local people. Politicians will be working with the private sector and the universities.”
The deal will need to be formally agreed with each of the councils in South Yorkshire and there will be consultation with residents and businesses. Also, the Government’s Cities and Local Government Bill must be passed through Parliament first.
Sir Coun Steve Houghton – chairman of the South Yorkshire combined authority – said that ‘all too often’ the north had been the first region to suffer and the last to come out of difficulties such as recession while only ‘short term’ solutions to symptoms had been offered by Government.
He said: “For the first time in our history we are being given that opportunity – to take control of our own future.”
Other key elements of the deal include a pilot of retention of business rate growth with the potential for full retention in the future, something local leaders have long hoped for, as well as an improved approach to marketing the city and a wider approach to planning.
On the £900m of funding Richard Wright, executive director of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said: “It must be totally commercially focused so that we deliver the profitable growth needed to become truly internationally competitive.
“Only then will we deliver the long term sustainable employment this region needs.”
Deputy Sheffield Council Leigh Bramall emphasised the proposal was “not something that’s a done deal” and said he intended to push for more control of the budget.
Coun Bramall suggested positive changes on transportation issues.
He said: “The bus cuts that are going on are a direct cause of centralised Government control, and this is part of the process to actually overturn that so we control the money and we can decide what we want to prioritise.”
John warned the deal wasn’t a clear cut solution and said: “There’s no magic bullet in this agreement that gets rid of austerity. We need to be clear about that. But what this does give us is more tools to grow the economy. And ultimately, a stronger economy will make us more resistant to economic shots in the future.”
Both men stressed the deal differed dramatically from the opposed mayoral referendum in 2012.
John acknowledged the shortcomings in the previous proposal and said: “One of the issues that was often raised by people then, was saying, ‘Well, what will the mayor do? What new powers will the mayor have?’ And the answer was none.”
Coun Bramall said: “Currently the decisions the mayor can make are being made in London, by officials, rather than by us. So it’s not losing something, it’s gaining something. That’s the offer on the table. It’s very, very different from what was voted on previously.”
One of the big questions now will be who will run for the position of the directly elected mayor.
Well-known names such as former Sheffield MP Richard Caborn and Sir Steve Houghton are likely to be suggested.
When asked who might be a frontrunner, Mr Mothersole had a different suggestion.
He said: “Buzz Lightyear.”