Who’s in the frame? The shape of the Northern powerhouse is on its way

With the announcement of an elected Mayor for Sheffield City Region, the second piece of the northern powerhouse jigsaw has been placed by Chancellor Osborne.  After months of wrangling that led the Prime Minister to joke that councils in Yorkshire couldn’t get their act together, the Sheffield City Region brings together Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham with Sheffield itself, in a partnership that will take control of significant powers and funding for transport, housing, planning and skills. sheffieldThe City Region builds on the work of a Local Enterprise Partnership that also encompassed district councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire although it is not yet clear exactly how they will be involved in the City Region Combined Authority Devolution Deal in practice.

George Osborne personally launched the deal with local civic leaders, hailing it as a “vital part in helping to build the Northern Powerhouse”.  Aware of the criticism that the Greater Manchester deal was a pre-election political gambit, rather than reflecting a wider strategy, he said that the Sheffield City Deal shows that his work with Greater Manchester is “not a one-off” as some had suggested. The Chancellor is also facing down rising criticism from Corbynites that the northern powerhouse is just a way to delegate cuts – a northern poorhouse as protesters portrayed it during the TUC’s anti austerity demonstration. The Sheffield City Region Deal shows the Conservatives can do a deal with another Labour stronghold, with the support of Labour led councils and local MPs. That George Osborne can speak so glowingly of devolution during his Conservative Party Conference speech, at the same time as announcing Labour’s Lord Adonis as the un-elected chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, is just one of the paradoxes that besets this agenda.

But the Deal does include a commitment to finding new ways to incentivise local growth, as demonstrated in the Chancellor’s announcement that local authorities will be allowed to keep £26 billion of  Business Rates. Enterprise Zones will be rolled out across the City Region area, while Barnsley is to benefit from a ‘major town centre improvement plan’. Doncaster’s special mention is focused on aligning support for the new National College for High Speed Rail with new Institutes of Technology.  For Sheffield and Rotherham, the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District is to be promoted. In contrast to Devo-Manc, where the City is so clearly the central economic driver, the benefits of the Sheffield City Deal seem more spread out, perhaps reflecting the realpolitik of bringing together the South Yorkshire local authorities.  These politics will now play out in the battle for the Mayoralty.

So who are the runners and riders for an elected mayor? The vote will be in May 2017 and an interim will be chosen early next year.  Councillor Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley and Chair of the South Yorkshire Combined Authority is a front-runner. Sir Steve is highly respected by both local government leaders and MPs in the region.  He is a calm, confident figure who has consistently shown that he is more interested in getting results and in winning plaudits. He has passed up several opportunities to stand for Parliament and instead has chosen to make a difference through local politics.  If Sir Steve doesn’t run for Mayor, he will be a powerful King-maker instead, and will remain at the heart of the governance of the City Deal.

Councillor Julie Dore has been the Leader of Sheffield City Council since Labour seized back control from the Liberal Democrats in 2011.  Cllr Dore has focused on City Politics and has not chosen to take a prominent role in national politics, such as in the Local Government Association.  She is generally seen as a collegiate figure who is first among equals at the City Council.  The role of Mayor and the bruising battle to get elected may not be for her. In contrast, Doncaster already has an elected Mayor, Ros Jones, who has shown she is up for the fight when she won back Labour control in Donny from the maverick Mayor Davis. Working with her highly rated Chief Executive, Jo Miller, Mayor Jones has led Doncaster out of the local government ‘basket case’, although the council still faces challenges. Rotherham has even more recently been in turmoil, following the child abuse scandal, and none of its local Leader’s are likely to feel ready or able to seek the new City Region Mayor role.

The new role could be attractive to MPs, particularly given that they face five long years in opposition.  John Healey would have been a good tip, although he has just accepted a key role in Jeremy Corbyn’s team. Rosie Winterton, the Doncaster Central MP is a key figure in the region, having previously been the Minister for Yorkshire, but she will not be tempted away from Westminster and her challenging role as Opposition Chief Whip. Clive Betts MP, the long-serving Chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee is an outspoken localist who has advocated for greater devolution.  As a former Council Leader, might he be tempted to return to his civic roots and put his devolution commitment to the test?

Then there are former MPs. Dick Caborn, previously a Minister for the Regions and long time enthusiast for South Yorkshire. Or David Blunkett perhaps the most well known grandee of Sheffield? Looking beyond Westminster, one shouldn’t ignore – after the success of the Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd in securing the Greater Manchester interim Mayor role – the PCC for South Yorkshire, Dr Alan Billings, although he is not a former MP or well known. Another longshot is the former Chief Executive of Sheffield Council, Lord Sir Bob Kerslake, a widely respected figure in South Yorkshire after ten years’ service there and who Labour recently favourited for their review of the Treasury.

Looking beyond the world of politics, we can probably rule out Sheffield born celebrities like Jarvis Cocker and Peter Stringfellow. Victoria Wood has local roots but her comedy material avoids politics.  Eddie Izzard on the other hand is highly political and backed Labour’s election campaign this year, but he is unlikely to return to his Sheffield roots to take up the challenge of running for Mayor, although stranger things have happened. The candidates will emerge certainly by next year but one thing is certain: whether they are politicians or comedians, or both, they will be taking this election very seriously – with Connect you also can can start to do so!

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