The “odd” and “conceptual” nature of some of the questions in Sheffield City Region Combined Authority’s devolution consultation helped to render parts of it “unlawful”, a high court judge has ruled.
In his judgment on the judicial review brought by Derbyshire CC Justice Sir Duncan Ouseley said the “public were not in substance consulted” about plans to extend the combined authority to include Chesterfield BC, which he said was a “major proponent of the scheme”.
chesterfield wonky spire
Source: The National Churches Trust
Derbyshire objects to Chesterfield’s bid to join the city region, a move that would involve it also becoming a constituent member of the combined authority.
While Justice Ouseley rejected the majority of Derbyshire’s claims in relation to the consultation, he said the structure of some questions was “decidedly odd” with the “preamble and question not quite meeting each other”. Instead of asking specifically whether Chesterfield should become part of the combined authority, the consultation asked respondents whether they supported the principle of councils working together where there were “strong economic links”.
Justice Ouseley said this was a “conceptual” and leading question.
“The question is also highly tendentious, and on the face of it could only receive one sensible answer,” he said.
Under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, the communities secretary can make an order changing the boundaries of a combined authority providing the public has been consulted “in connection with the proposals in the scheme”. The consultation can be carried out by the communities secretary or the combined authority.
Justice Ouseley said a consultation could not be deemed to be ‘in connection with the scheme’ “merely because it asked questions which were connected to the proposals, if major issues were nonetheless omitted”.
In conclusion he said: “Accordingly, it is the absence of a question in the questionnaire about whether Chesterfield BC should be a constituent council of the [combined authority] which would make the consultation unlawful.”
However, he said he would not quash the consultation as it was not wholly unlawful and his ruling was a “precursor” to the communities secretary considering his duties and he may decide only a part of the consultation needed to be run again.
Derbyshire had also argued that as all of its residents would be impacted by the break-up of the county’s responsibilities for some services, including some transport functions, the whole county should have been consulted on the proposals not just those living within the nine councils that are combined authority members.
However, the judge dismissed that claim on the grounds there was nothing in the legislation to stipulate whether or not the city region should have actively consulted with residents outside the city region area. He also pointed out the combined authority had not actively excluded residents from wider Derbyshire from contributing and had considered the views expressed in the 161 responses from outside of the combined authority area.
Justice Ouseley said: “If the [communities secretary] wants public consultation more targeted on those areas of concern to Derbyshire CC, and thinks that consultation is necessary for him to reach his judgments on the statutory criteria, he can of course conduct it or ask the combined authority to do so.”
The judge also rejected Derbyshire’s claim that the consultation was unfair because it failed to provide enough information about the impact on the county council. The county council also claimed the consultation was misleading as it claimed that the county had had “significant input” into the governance review that preceded the consultation.
Royal Courts of Justice
He said: “The accuracy or otherwise of that comment was debated with discernible ill will between the witnesses for both sides in their witness statements; the issue they argued to and fro was whether the combined authority had rebuffed or evaded Derbyshire CC’s attempts at engagement, or whether Derbyshire CC had spurned the authority’s attempts at engagement.”
A spokesman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said: “Government will consider today’s judgment carefully and we will look at any implications it might have for how the Sheffield City Region devolution deal is implemented.
“We remain 100% committed to the agreed deal – which would significantly benefit local peoples’ lives, bringing a range of new powers alongside £900m of extra funding.
“It is now for the Sheffield City Region to decide how it wishes to proceed.”