A couple of weeks back, the Labour party announced that Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis had won the vote to be its candidate to for the new role of Sheffield City Region mayor.
This announcement immediately raised several eyebrows: Dan Jarvis is a currently serving MP and has shown no sign he was planning to resign should he win the mayoral election (something which he will almost certainly do, given South Yorkshire’s status as a Labour stronghold).
The NEC, Labour’s ruling body, stated shortly afterwards that he would, in fact, have to resign as he’s not allowed to do two jobs at once. This stance didn’t last long, however, and the NEC ‘clarified’ (i.e. backtracked) shortly afterward and conceded that he actually can do two jobs at once.
One might reasonably wonder how he could be an effective mayor for the region whilst remaining as an MP. Well, there’s a straightforward answer to that: he doesn’t want to be an effective mayor. Jarvis has stated that he will take no salary for the mayoral role and will instead “remain in the Commons to argue for stronger powers across Yorkshire” .
This isn’t particularly surprising, given that Jarvis has publicly criticised the very concept of Sheffield City Region devolution, going so far as to claim in a recent interview that:
…the reason the government wants to force through a Sheffield city region deal is for naked political reasons […] They don’t want Labour-dominated South Yorkshire to pollute their electoral prospects in the rest of Yorkshire.
In the same interview he also stated that:
No one will ever go to a football or rugby match and shout ‘Sheffield city region’ – but they will shout for Yorkshire because that’s something they feel is important, that matters and that they identify with.
Jarvis has made clear that he sees the mayoralty as a platform from which to push for a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal. In other words, he will almost certainly be elected to a role that he not only doesn’t want, but that he will actively be working to dismantle.
How did we end up here?
For those of us who have been closely watching this all play out, this recent news isn’t at all surprising. The Sheffield City Region devolution deal has been fragile from the get go.
The first big challenge occurred when Chesterfield Borough Council – previously a “non-constituent member” – applied for full constituent status of Sheffield City Region in late 2016. This meant that the elected mayor would have direct powers over Chesterfield.
To say Derbyshire County Council, of which Chesterfield was a part, didn’t approve of this move is an understatement: it took Sheffield City Region to court over it. The High Court eventually sided with Derbyshire Council, agreeing that there hadn’t been a good enough public consultation. Both Chesterfield and Bassetlaw subsequently withdrew from the deal.
The second challenge was the battle over where the region’s HS2 station will be situated. Initial plans had the station out at Meadowhall, several miles from Sheffield city centre. This did not sit well with many business leaders or Sheffield City Council, who argued that the economic case for a station in the city centre was far stronger.
So local paper The Star launched a high-profile campaign to move the station to the city centre. That campaign was eventually successful, and in early 2017 the government announced a new plan for a line going further east following close to the M18, with a spur sending HS2 trains to the current Sheffield Station.
Barnsley and Doncaster Councils acrimoniously pulled out of the devolution deal in September 2017. Steve Houghton, the head of Barnsley Council, specifically mentioned concerns about HS2 in his statement explaining why he pulled Barnsley out of the devolution deal. Others are blaming the collapse of the devolution deal solely on the HS2 station disagreement.
A powerless mayor
We now have a strange situation where a mayor is being elected for all four South Yorkshire councils (Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, and Doncaster) without the assent of two of them. This means that the new mayor will have almost no powers or budget – yet the election has to go ahead because it was signed into law.
It’s pretty reasonable to wonder at this point: what will the mayor actually do? Well, according to the Sheffield City Region website, the mayor will be a “major figure in the political life of the area”, as a “member, and chair, of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority”, and “will have certain public transport powers relating to how buses may operate in the future”. In other words… not very much.
The initial devolution deal from 2015 included £900m of funding to grow the economy, and powers for adult skills and training, but this deal appears to have been predicated on all four councils agreeing to a level of mayoral authority that Barnsley and Doncaster are clearly uncomfortable with.
The Sheffield City Region site hints that this deal might still being available – if Barnsley and Doncaster are willing to return to the fold. But this is extremely unlikely. Both councils have well and truly thrown their weight behind the “One Yorkshire” devolution proposals, having recently worked with 18 out of 20 Yorkshire councils (without Sheffield and Rotherham) to submit a detailed bid to the government for a directly elected “Mayor for Yorkshire” in 2020. This is despite Sajid Javid specifically telling both councils that they could only join a One Yorkshire deal if they consented to the Sheffield City Region first. They’re clearly not even the least bit interested.
It’s not at all surprising, then, that a Barnsley MP with absolutely no interest in Sheffield City Region devolution would run for a job that he doesn’t want specifically with the goal of dismantling the city region and subsuming it into a wider Yorkshire deal. It may be negative, cynical, and deliberately destructive, but it fits the goals of Yorkshire’s councils.
Except for, of course, Sheffield and Rotherham – the two councils at the very heart of the region he is trying to dismantle.
Andrew Hirst blogs as The Northern Urbanist.
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