Call for stronger powers for Sheffield

Assembly of Sheffield citizens gave their views

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People in South Yorkshire have called for a stronger devolution deal than the one on the table for the Sheffield city-region.

In a vote last week, the 31 participants in Sheffield’s Citizens Assembly called for a Yorkshire-wide regional assembly as their preferred model of devolution, and said local politicians should negotiate with the government for a more ambitious and democratic devolution deal.

The participants are a broadly representative sample from Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster taking part in a project run by Democracy Matters, a group of academics from universities including Sheffield and the Electoral Reform Society.

The Sheffield assembly – and another in Southampton – are a response to constitutional changes facing the country, including the prospect of devolution for English areas.

In a deal currently on the table, Sheffield city-region would gain devolved powers from central government over transport, skills and economic development – but must commit to electing a mayor.

In 2012, two out of three Sheffield voters rejected the option of a directly elected mayor for the city, although the same devolved powers were not then being offered by central government.

Before its vote, the Citizens Assembly heard from Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Borough Council, who urged participants to embrace the mayor-led combined authority model currently on offer . They also heard from supporters of an alternative Yorkshire-wide devolution model, and an advocate of sticking to the existing council structure.

Participants voted for the Yorkshire-wide elected assembly model, with additional tax-setting powers. They rejected the devolution deal currently on offer for the Sheffield city-region, but pressed local politicians to push for a better deal rather than walk away.

“This Citizens Assembly has given local people the chance to come to the fore.”

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “As the government seeks to devolve powers towards local areas, they need to include citizens and not simply deliver their chosen solutions from above. This Citizens Assembly has given local people the chance to come to the fore and shape the devolution agenda. Politicians should sit up and take note.

“The assembly has been an exciting demonstration of the fact that people are more than capable of grappling with complex constitutional questions. By creating the space for citizens to inform themselves about the issues and debate with each other, the project has shown the potential for a new kind of democratic politics.”

Professor Matthew Flinders, principal investigator for the project, said: “Assembly members preferred a ‘rego’ over a ‘devo’ deal for the future, but they also want a better deal in the here and now. If a vote on the current devolution deal had been held this past weekend, a two-thirds majority of assembly members would have rejected it. Another vote showed strong opposition to an elected mayor.

“But corresponding votes revealed that assembly members did not want their leaders to walk away from negotiations. It’s not that the assembly members did not want devolution. What they want is genuine devolution with more powers and stronger accountability.

“It’s simply untrue that people do not care about politics and are disconnected from democracy. What these assemblies show is that citizens are ready, willing and able to embrace rigorous democratic deliberation.”

Photo: Sheffield Lantern Tower (neuroticcamel/Wikimedia Commons)

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