Devo is not a fig leaf for austerity. rejecting it will scupper social progress

By Mike Emmerich, Director

To paraphrase a certain politician, is no deal better than a bad deal?

That’s the question many in South Yorkshire will be scratching their heads over following the apparent demise of the Sheffield City Region’s push for devolution. For many, the decision by Barnsley and Doncaster to walk away represents a huge lost opportunity. But some may be feeling a certain sense of relief, coupled with a ‘told-you-so’ satisfaction.

I’m writing this having been drawn into a debate with academics Martin Jones and David Etherington concerning a recent blog post based on their report, Devolution and Disadvantage in the Sheffield City Region. The original paper is good and makes many valid points. But my concern was, and is, that in some circumstances analysis of a kind found in the subsequent blog can overcomplicate matters and play into the politics of the issue in a way I fear we might live to regret if followed to its logical conclusion.

Their original research lists, in impressive detail, the various problems facing councils within the Sheffield City Region. Direct budget cuts and reduced welfare to residents totalling £1.3bn since 2010 have hampered the chances of locals to access skills and apprenticeships and symied growth prospects. Few would dispute this.

But in their blog, they go further, concluding that the cuts “undermine any attempts to regenerate the city economy and actually reinforce the ‘race to the bottom’ of low pay and skills, and economic exclusion". This is where the point gets stretched too far: do cuts really undermine any effort?

Overall, this later analysis presents devolution as little more than a fig leaf for austerity. The South Yorkshire authorities, following their argument, were entering into a Faustian pact with the Government, shackling themselves to its broader spending agenda in exchange for a woefully inadequate £900m sop over 30 years.

That austerity and devolution happened at the same time is a matter of fact. But the links between them are virtually non-existent: government ruled nearly all the key revenue budgets out of scope before the process started. Cuts happened everywhere, regardless.  Attempting to make the connection risks de-legitimising the whole devolution process and maybe even local government itself - scuppering chances for city-regions to pursue inclusive growth strategies even in a less-than-perfect economic climate.

And we need to ask: What, exactly, is the alternative? Should we wait for the fiscal position to dramatically improve and abandon devolution in the interim (likely a very long time)? Or are sceptics advocating a return to 1980s-style illegal budgets as a symbolic, but ultimately futile attempt to force the Government's hand? Hard-left politics may be back in vogue right now, but older readers will remember that such tactics actually hindered progress.

Politics really is the art of the possible. That is what the devo deals are delivering. We can argue about whether they were imperfect and watch as some of them fall apart, or we can build the way social progress generally is achieved: step by painful step.

Devolution in Yorkshire is back in limbo. Local Government secretary Sajid Javid is so far sticking to the line that a pan-Yorkshire devo deal is not on the table. But whatever path is ultimately chosen, we must not abandon pragmatism in exchange for the perfect "right time" for devolution that may never materialise.