“We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else. We didn't realise they hated each other so much.” David Cameron in Leeds, September 2015.
City Region leaders listen to a presentation from external economists.
When the UK’s most easily forgettable ex-PM was caught out by a hot mic, he was way off the mark; mistaking healthy rivalry for genuine hostility. This is particularly true in the case of South Yorkshire. Barnsley, Rotherham Sheffield and Donny folk may fight like cats and dogs over the merits of their perennially awful football clubs; but they share a fraternity built on generations of struggle for liberty and egalitarianism under the weight of heavy metal and King Coal. However, if Cameron was talking about the region’s Labour politicians; he was dead on.
The town halls operate as clubland tribute acts to the ruling elite in Westminster - concerned with nest feathering and looking after their bigwig backers. In this context; the Sheffield City Region devolution stitch up, signed in time for George Osborne to play Bob the Builder at the Tory conference, made perfect sense. A straightforward, behind closed doors back scratching exercise where a little blame is sent north with a few bob to sweeten the deal. London gets cheap headlines about caring for the wretched hordes beyond Watford Gap and the local worthies get to sing the deindustrialization blues from behind a bigger desk. Everyone’s a winner…except the plebs.
Fast forward to September 2016. The brothers and sisters of South Yorkshire Labour are at loggerheads and the deal is on the rocks. Whereas the national party’s divisions are ideological disputes, the local bunfight is all about empire building.
The first public sign that something was rotten in the state of Sheffield City Region came at the Combined Authority meeting last week. Glyn Jones, deputy chair of the Doncaster cabinet, raised an old concern. None of the council leaders ever wanted an elected mayor; believing that their divine right to rule South Yorkshire based on their 30% turnout ward elections gave them a mandate to make the appointment in house. Jones wanted to test the new PM’s resolve on the matter. He received some support from Barnsley leader Sir Steve Houghton, who naturally thought that the current arrangement, with him as chair, was far better than all that democracy nonsense. Sheffield’s Julie Dore attempted to slap them down; saying that there could be no more delays. She was adamant that the deal, including the mayor, was non negotiable. Strange; considering that Dore had insisted that the original deal had to be renegotiated previously when Sheffield said they would not pass it otherwise. Her demands then included allowing Bassetlaw and Chesterfield to become full members- thus ensuring that Sheffield was at the geographical centre of the region and making sure she had a couple of stooges on the firm. (Three other districts south of the border opted to stay as associate members- causing an administrative mess that one academic gloriously referred to as the Balkanization of Derbyshire) On cue, the representatives of the two aforementioned districts backed her with the enthusiasm of hostages reading statements about how well they are being treated.
The next day, Yorkshire Post Live dismissed rumours of the national government wobbling; reporting a Treasury source doubling down on the project with a mayor as an integral part of the deal. It seemed like that was that; but Glyn Jones had other ideas. Reporting back to the Doncaster council chamber a couple of days later, Jones stressed that it was “not a done deal” and that Donny would not give the go ahead until they were satisfied. Puffed up on home turf and out of range of Julie Dore’s steely stare, the big man stated that it was “highly improbable” that a mayor would be elected in May 2017.
The main item of business on the Donny agenda was the rerouting of HS2. Apparently, of the small number of gullible types who ever believed that HS2 would have a station in South Yorkshire, a high percentage are high ranking Labour politicians. Beyond the real HS2 that runs through Oxfordshire to increase capacity into London, there is a fantasy HS2 that steams up to Yorkshire ram packed full of high paid jobs. The mythical South Yorkshire station was to be at Meadowhall but, after £190k’s worth of lobbying by Sheffield, HS2 kindly agreed to save a billion quid and run an inferior service into the existing city centre station- not the Victoria site that was the key to the city council's regeneration strategy. Bizarrely, Sheffield claimed that securing an infrequent, non high speed spur line to the wrong location was a huge victory. Their comrades in Rotherham and Donny, where hundreds of family homes would be bulldozed with no benefit for either borough, were far from chuffed.
Rotherham, the most discredited council in history, debated the matter and passed a motion that resembled a large bowl of fudge. Led by a young hotshot, who no doubt fancies himself as a metro mayor down the line, they are careful not to rock the boat. When all the others had their say at the SCRCA meeting, the boy Chris Read silently gazed at his shoes.
In Doncaster, they do things a little differently. In the wake of the Donnygate scandal, the voters shook the establishment by electing a non Labour mayor. Unfortunately, they chose a man with the politics of Reggie Perrin’s brother in law Jimmy, but the shock outcome left a legacy. Unlike in neighbouring boroughs, Labour don’t feel they can treat the electorate with complete contempt anymore. Also, Donny people actually know about railways. Having the fastest and best service to the capital of any northern town or city, they realise claims that a speedy train to London will guarantee prosperity must be taken with a sack of salt.
Mayor Ros Jones had the simple job of agreeing with everyone else in the chamber. Doncaster must say no to HS2. More accurately; Doncaster must say no to HS2 in Doncaster, but the old route smashing through houses in other people’s backyards was OK and could the HS2 college still be in the town please.
It was when other councillors spoke to the motion that the vitriol really flowed. Phil Cole said Sheffield of had an "inferiority complex" about rail. Tory Jonathan Wood accused Sheffield City Council of "bait and switch" tactics and "gerrymandering". Councillor Clive Stone summed up the mood of the meeting when he said that if this kind of thing continued under devolution - it would mean "us taking second place to the whims and desires of Sheffield" and Doncaster should reconsider the whole arrangement.
It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of an old imperial governor as the pompous tribal chiefs knocked lumps out of each other about decisions made faraway over which they had absolutely no control.
So where do we go from here? The City Region deal is top down arrangement designed to maintain the status quo. It’s hardly surprising that the chosen few don’t want to listen to what the people actually want.
These are scary times for Labour politicians in South Yorkshire. The harsh culture of heavy industry created a desire for social justice and ingrained common sense. The latter is now kicking in and it tells people that the 2016 Labour Party is incapable of ever delivering the former. Officials who have made a good living from managing decline, while at the same time having a little moan and pleading for a top up in their begging bowl, are not equipped to deal with the new reality. Although the Sheffield City Region is a flawed concept and the current deal is local government reorganization rather than devolution - it is a baby step in the right direction.
It may be that the fear of letting the devolution cat out of the bag is causing second thoughts. Greed and an overriding self preservation instinct are the enemies of radical thought. Ambition and petty rivalries mean that Labour have turned on each other rather than addressing the underlying problem of Westminster dictating policy for a region it neither understands or cares about.
Labour appear ready to crash the whole project rather than face the people. Their sticking point is the only democratic element of the process. The open warfare that has broken out means that Sheffield’s bid to dominate the rest is doomed to fail and any hope of rising star Leigh Bramall landing the top job are dead in the water. Now the man most likely is Sir Steve Houghton - a bland sketch of a bureaucrat and probably the only compromise candidate who can keep a lid on things.
- Are Labour going to stand on their record of decade after decade of failure?
- What new ideas have they got on transport, skills and enterprise?
- Which vision of a city region will they champion- Sheffield’s mini Manchester fantasy or some other back of a fag packet plan?
- Will they continue to argue that economic and social policy are totally unrelated?
- How will they justify signing a flawed deal that sells out Yorkshire?
The Yorkshire Party have been calling out Labour on these issues but they snootily refuse to engage. For years, they have relied on the loyalty of the people and offered nothing in return. Faced with the choice of fighting a real election in South Yorkshire or pulling the plug- it wouldn’t be out of character for them to take the coward’s way out.
At the SCRCA meeting, Sir Steve Houghton said it was clear that the people want more devolution. Whatever happens over the next few weeks, the issue is now out in the open and it is not going away.
To paraphrase the great Joe Louis: they can run, but they can’t hide.