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Referendums are unpredictable – be careful what you ask

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

Section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003 habitually leads a quiet life, sitting unobtrusively on the statute book and only occasionally roused from its slumbers.

It is though about to be at the heart of a bust-up between South Yorkshire councils.

The section empowers councils to hold non-binding local polls, and among its few substantial uses to date were the Greater Manchester congestion charge, defeated in 2008, and Durham CC’s poll on the now-defunct North East devolution deal last year, which revealed only lukewarm support.

That - as David Cameron discovered to his cost - is the problem with referendums. The public can give the wrong answer.

But now Barnsley and Doncaster MBCs propose to hold local polls on whether to remain part of the Sheffield City Region devolution deal or seek membership of a putative Greater Yorkshire one.

Writing that as a succinct question for voters might be problem enough, but surely further head-scratching will be caused by the proposals’ status.

The Sheffield City Region lives and breathes. It is still supported by Rotherham MBC and Sheffield City Council and is on offer from the government, which wants a mayoral election next May.

The Greater Yorkshire deal - covering the entire historic county - is backed by a disparate range of people and organisations but isn’t on offer from the government.

It’s not even slightly on offer; it has been explicitly ruled out by ministers.

Devolution to ‘Greater Yorkshire’ emerged in response to problems that had arisen during the county’s original devolution debates, namely that the Leeds City Region wanted to include three districts from North Yorkshire CC to have an economically coherent area, but North Yorkshire declined to surrender its relevant powers in the areas concerned to the combined authority.

Hull City Council did not really fit in with anywhere - councils south of the Humber having thrown in their lot with Lincolnshire - and so also promoted the Greater Yorkshire idea.

Barnsley and Doncaster both no doubt hope the public will support the Greater Yorkshire option and so build pressure on the government to change its view that devolution to such a large area would be unwieldy and a ‘Yorkshire mayor’ too powerful.

Even if they succeed, they may have set an inadvertent precedent and there will have to be similar polls across Yorkshire.

Referendums are though unpredictable - and the public’s answer may be the loud sound of a popular soft fruit.

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