Since the former chancellor, George Osbourne’s, push for devolution deals, the opportunities arising from the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 have been snapped up by a host of city regions. Last year, metro mayors were elected for the city regions of Liverpool, Manchester and the Tees Valley, but noticeable by its absence was Sheffield, once famous throughout the world as the capital of steel.
This is set to change. On 3 May, people of the Sheffield City Region will finally be able vote for their first metro mayor.
Why the delay?
In 2015, a deal was struck between the Sheffield City Region and George Osbourne to devolve powers to South Yorkshire - Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham, as well as other surrounding areas - and invest £900 million into transport, infrastructure and skills.
These plans hit a roadblock after a high court ruling that the people of Chesterfield had not been properly consulted over whether they wanted to be part of this new ‘Sheffield City Region’. Soon after, Barnsley and Doncaster pulled out of the arrangement in preference to a ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution deal.
This left Sheffield and Rotherham on their own and threw up into the air not only the £900 million of funding but also the entire city region project.
A common problem
Similar issues have plagued potential devolution deals across the UK. In Lincolnshire and East Anglia, devolution proposals have collapsed owing to local authorities disagreeing over whether they want to be identified as a unified body. Sir Henry Bellingham, MP for North West Norfolk claimed that an East Anglian deal would be a ‘Suffolk takeover’, and Barnsley and Doncaster evidently had similar concerns about the power that the city of Sheffield could wield over its smaller neighbours. In these cases, the pursuit of the brave new world of empowered city regions has to be finely balanced against the many senses of place and identity that are deeply ingrained within the communities to be brought together by each new political super-region. For many, coming from Yorkshire – ‘God’s Own Country’ - means something substantial; coming from the Sheffield City Region, perhaps does not.
The runners and riders
While the £3.75bn One Yorkshire bid persists with the backing of 18 of Yorkshire’s 20 councils, it has not prevented the Sheffield City Region pursuing its own fast-track to devolution, and May’s election will see voters in Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster choose their first ever city region mayor.
In an area where all the parliamentary seats and councils are held by Labour (besides Jared O’Mara, the MP for Sheffield Hallam recently suspended by Labour and now an Independent) it is fair to say that the Labour candidate, Dan Jarvis, is the favourite. A Labour moderate who backed Owen Smith in the 2016 party leadership race, the MP for Barnsley Central is the bookies’ favourite. If he is successful, he will be the latest Labour MP to take the helm of a city region, following Steve Rotheram (Liverpool) and Andy Burnham (Manchester). It is apparent that some senior politicians now see better opportunities to make a difference at the helm of a city region than on Westminster’s opposition benches.
However, there could be some surprises for Jarvis along the way. The Green Party has made some gains on the back of Labour-run Sheffield City Council’s increasingly unpopular tree-felling scheme, and will seek to make further inroads on 3 May.
The Liberal Democrats have history in this area, with their former leader, Nick Clegg, the MP for Sheffield Hallam until 2017. Their mayoral candidate, Hannah Kitching, is not expected to win, but it will be interesting to see if she can start to claw back some of the historic goodwill lost at the last general election.
Conservative candidate, Ian Walker, stood in the 2017 general election in Sheffield Hallam and gained the biggest swing in the seat to finish third in the race, earning an impressive 23.8% of the vote – 10.2% up from 2015. A similar result in this election would certainly turn a few heads.
It will also be interesting to see how The Yorkshire Party fare. Its candidate, Mike Bower, could enjoy a greater profile than his party’s 0.1% of the national vote at the last general election might suggest - particularly in an election where local identity will be central to the agenda.
The task ahead
Top of the mayor’s agenda will be to actually agree a devolution deal. Dan Jarvis has already led a debate in the House of Commons on full Yorkshire devolution and has stated that he would use his role as mayor to campaign for a Yorkshire-wide mayoral election by 2020. To do so, he would have to unite plenty of warring factions that have stymied devolution deals in the past.
Owing to the difficult history of devolution in Yorkshire, the new mayor will not have the kind of devolved funding and policy levers which their counterparts elsewhere enjoyed from day one of their term in office. However, the new mayor will have powers over franchised bus services and can support the combined authority’s implementation of smart ticketing across the region.
Besides this, the role of mayor will largely be a spokesperson for South Yorkshire: to be the figurehead around which the combined authority’s business and investment ambitions can coalesce and be communicated to the region’s communities.Unfortunately, it is feared that voter turnout will be low. This would be a blow for those who want to see the mayor have a real sense of credibility and authority and would be an underwhelming start to an already dampened advance into devolution for south Yorkshire.