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“I never thought I’d see the day when a Conservative government is offering four Labour councils £30m a year and they can’t decide whether to take it or not.”
That was Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts’ latest summary of the Sheffield City Region devolution deal saga which has, remarkably, got even messier in recent weeks.
Having once been at the forefront of the devolution drive, the political leadership of the region’s CA has since descended into farce, if not complete chaos.
Barnsley MBC’s leader Sir Stephen Houghton and Doncaster MBC’s mayor Ros Jones have both decided to use the summer holiday season to join 15 other council leaders in exploring the possibility of a Yorkshire-wide deal, even though the government could not have been any clearer that it won’t entertain the idea.
LGC’s editor Nick Golding has written today about how a Yorkshire-wide agreement “has the potential to move devolution to a different level”, provided the councils involved can form a cohesive political unit and take decisions benefiting more than one economic area.
Centre for Cities’ principal economist Paul Swinney told LGC the “principle” of devolution deals is to improve the economic performance of places and warned that “bundling” together places like Halifax and Hull – separated by 75 miles – “is not particularly helpful” when trying to draw up an effective economic plan for the region.
That aside, actually getting everyone involved to agree to this concept in the first place would be no mean feat. For a start the leaders of Sheffield City Council, Rotherham MBC, and Wakefield MDC were notable absentees at a meeting on this issue last week.
Even if the leaders of the 17 other local authorities across Yorkshire somehow managed to persuade their as-yet-reluctant counterparts it was a good idea, it would still need to get the approval of every council’s backbenchers.
As Mr Betts told LGC: “If it has been this difficult to get four councils to agree to a deal like this, how difficult will it be to get 20 council leaders to agree to a deal [for the whole of Yorkshire]? The idea that it’s going to happen within a timescale of this parliament is just make believe.”
Sheffield and Rotherham remain steadfast in their support for the deal currently on the table.
Sheffield’s deputy leader Olivia Blake (Lab), who is the daughter of Leeds City Council’s leader Judith Blake (LGC can only begin to imagine what conversations must be taking place at family get-togethers at the moment!), said she was “clear” the city “will always do what is right for Sheffield and South Yorkshire” and added: “That means concluding the deal that is available to us – a deal that is set to bring £900m to our region, to grow our economy, create jobs and boost people’s skills.”
Except there is a possibility the government might decide it no longer wants to hand any funding and powers down to the region now that half of its members have spent so long prevaricating. It will still get a mayor though, deal or no deal, according to Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry.
That might sound like an imposition but local leaders last year signed up to adopting an elected mayor and an order was passed in parliament in July 2016. That order did not, however, contain any provisions to pass powers down – that is still to come.
LGC understands the government had hoped splitting up the legislation in this way would prevent situations such as the one the Sheffield City Region now finds itself in.
One senior source in the region noted the irony that leaders might now “end up with a mayor which they didn’t want and won’t get the funding and powers they did want”.
As Mr Betts put it: “It’s the worst of everything.”
Yet the benefits of securing a devolution deal were once again paraded prominently in front of the sector yesterday when six combined authorities - and actually Sheffield City Region was among those - secured control of a combined £28m of new money from the government to help the long-term unemployed back into work.
This is different to previous commitments to co-design the government’s work and health programme which had been beset with issues including frustration from combined authorities over a lack of influence over how money could be spent and the way the programme could operate as a result of the Department for Work & Pensions’ plans to let contracts over large areas that went beyond their boundaries.
However, combined authorities collectively managed to get the government to understand the issues they were facing, presented solutions to the problem, and now have a share of new money to show for it.
While £28m might not sound a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, Tees Valley CA managing director Andrew Lewis told LGC this outcome is “better than the original proposal to co-design the work and health programme because it’s got more local autonomy and, for us, a much higher level of resources than would’ve been the case”.
As communities secretary Sajid Javid said, these funding allocations showed the government was “going even further” than the commitments contained in the original devolution deals.
It is yet another example of how these agreements can open doors in government and provide areas with opportunities not afforded to others. That’s something Sheffield and Rotherham might just be reminding Barnsley and Doncaster of ahead of a crunch CA meeting in September which will go a long way to determing the fate of the region’s deal.