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No love lost in Sheffield City Region

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

“We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else, we didn’t realise they hated each other so much,” David Cameron joking about different devolution bids in Yorkshire in September 2015.

Within 45 minutes, two years’ worth of relationship-building, negotiations, discussions and deliberations (as well as a trip to the High Court) about Sheffield City Region’s devolution deal came to an abrupt, and unsavoury, end this morning. Well, sort of.

After a summer of flirtation with 15 other council leaders across Yorkshire, Barnsley MBC leader Sir Stephen Houghton and Doncaster MBC mayor Ros Jones decided their hearts were no longer with their South Yorkshire partners in Sheffield and Rotherham.

The region’s devolution deal had included commitments that would have seen the region gain control of £30m a year over 30 years, control of a £20m a year consolidated transport budget up to 2020-21, and control of the 19+ adult skills funding budget worth up to £30m a year, among other powers.

But Barnsley and Doncaster have decided to turn their backs on that deal for one which does not exist and almost certainly never will according to the latest statement from the Department for Communities & Local Government.

“I don’t think we’re crazy” for turning down the deal, said Ms Jones after this morning’s meeting. It’s certainly brave and lays bare the weak foundations many devolution deals have been founded upon.

Last year the government witnessed agreements in Greater Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and the North East fall by the wayside, while negotiations in Lancashire and Solent struggled to get past the early stages.

Greater Manchester’s partnership has been a work in progress for more than 30 years. It was always going to be a struggle for other areas to reach the same levels of trust in such a short space of time.

But the Sheffield City Region, despite at one time being in the vanguard of the devolution agenda, has been beset with problems and mistrust from the very start, according to claims from Sheffield City Council’s leader Julie Dore.

Long-held concerns about adopting an elected mayor began to emerge in Barnsley and Doncaster last year, while disagreements between Doncaster and Sheffield in particular over the HS2 route (which saw Doncaster eventually lose out to Sheffield’s proposal) did nothing to improve local relations this year.

Relations right now appear to be at rock bottom with Sheffield leader Julie Dore (Lab) this afternoon telling the BBC she felt betrayed by Doncaster chief executive Jo Miller “going behind closed doors”. MS Miller declined to comment beyond saying she refuted “inaccurate statements”. 

But as things stand the whole city region – Barnsley and Doncaster very much included – will still be getting an (almost powerless) mayor next May and it will cost them all about £1m too.

That is something surely all four leaders can agree is a bad deal.

Options still on the table range from asking government to delay the mayoral election next year to disbanding the combined authority altogether, although LGC understands there’s little appetite to pursue such extreme action at this point in time.

Ironically, at a time of a big breakdown in regional relations it is now more than ever that the leaders and chief executives of Doncaster, Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham will need to work together to find a satisfactory resolution to this mess.

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