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Perspectives on the city deal negotiations

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I used to go to MIPIM, but haven’t been for a while.

For the uninitiated, MIPIM (Le marché international des professionnels de l’immobilier) is the property development extravaganza that takes place every year in Cannes.  One of the striking features of it is a large number of people boasting about global property deals that are “about to be done”.  Of course a deal is not a deal until it is “actually” done.  And so with the city deals, it is undoubtedly to everyone’s credit that eight deals that were “about to be done” have now become eight deals that have been done. 

Of course, the other aspect of any deal is that it takes at least two people.  Both parties need to give, and both parties need to take.  It has to be based on two way traffic with sufficient rigour of accountability, a large helping of trust and specific promises and contributions.

As we reach the end of the city deal process, I guess the key question is “would you do it again”?  For me, undoubtedly we would.

The positive features of the process are that it has happened remarkably quickly (although followers of core city policy may wryly observe that it has probably taken seven years to become an overnight sensation!).  We have come out of it with a deal, the content of which is very similar to the content with which we started.  We have as a city region partnership come out of it stronger and more mature, having been asked to consider issues that we knew we would need to consider but to look at them more quickly and with greater focus.  We have also exposed our credentials to more ministers than would have been the case and we have encountered a different breed of civil servant.

Credit must go to the Cities Unit in the Cabinet Office and the degree of ministerial engagement.  I get the sense that some robust discussions took place behind the scenes on our behalf which is always good, and some robust discussions took place with us in the room. 

Of course we had worries and wobbles along the way.  Partly, this was because the policy of the deals was emerging as we went through the process.  Personally, I have no problem with that – I would always rather be involved with something, shaping it, than receiving the final product and offering my critique.  It may though perhaps not be what we are used to, with some of our questions unable to be answered (which is fine) and the end product at least at the start not being required to fit a pre-set blueprint.  Occasionally this is unnerving, but on balance it must be welcomed.  I also got a little worried that the focus on governance at some points was in danger of becoming over-bearing.  This though caused us to accelerate our thinking in Sheffield City Region, and as a result it rapidly calmed down and at the end I think is a proportionate part of our deal.

So why did the process work?  Well it wouldn’t have worked without the local city region partnership being strong, mature and operating on a high trust model given that the situation moved quickly.  It wouldn’t have happened without ministerial backing and the support of the Cities Unit.  It wouldn’t have happened without the behind the scenes preparatory policy work that has taken place over many years.  And it wouldn’t have happened without individual departments engaging with the process.

So where did we end up in Sheffield City Region?  Well we ended up with a deal that I believe is very specific, very quantifiable, and will stretch us to deliver.  Being stretched though is good – if ever Sheffield City Region, England, or indeed the UK needs its city regions to be stretched it is now.  In particular, the highlight of our deal – and all the deals will point to their specific highlights – is the new investment in skills that has been made where employers will be put in control of money that was previously not being spent in the city region.  This will address the perversity that we face where we do actually have skilled jobs for young people but we just need more skilled young people.

Delivery is the next step.  However, we must not lose sight of the fact that now the deal has been done, we hope we have a new and trusted relationship with government.  I have said in other places that the content of the deal is important, but of equal importance is being a city region that has done a deal with government.  This as far as I am concerned is only the first deal of many.  Our hope is that we don’t need to go into a programme of being invited to do the next round of deals.  We intend to be a self confident, demanding partner of government that will be seeking to do deal after deal in the interests of our communities and in the interests of economic growth both locally and contributing nationally.

If you are one of the places that has done a deal, well done.  If you are one of the places that is yet to have your chance, seize the opportunity.

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