The planning standoff in the Sheffield city-region

A dispute between the four local authorities that make up the Sheffield City Region is holding back significant powers for the newly elected mayor, writes Adam Branson.

Labour's Dan Jarvis: will have little planning power until the dispute is resolved
Labour's Dan Jarvis: will have little planning power until the dispute is resolved

In the recent local elections, one contest stood out as an oddity. The election of a metro mayor for the Sheffield City Region was hard fought by all the candidates, but in the knowledge that whoever won – which was ultimately Labour’s Dan Jarvis – would not actually have any substantial powers. As things stand, Jarvis does not even have a salary.

A city deal for the Sheffield City Region was signed with the government by the leaders all four constituent authorities – Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham – in 2016. But two subsequently had second thoughts. Last year, Doncaster and Barnsley’s leaders – in a reportedly confrontational meeting – expressed their preference for a pan-Yorkshire deal dubbed "One Yorkshire", a position backed by polls held in each authority area.

Central government strongly advocates the Sheffield City Region deal, but its hands are tied by its own legislation. For powers to be passed down to the mayor, all constituent authorities must consult their communities on the contents of the devolution deal, and pass the results to the communities secretary, although what weight he will then attach to them is unclear. Funnily enough, Doncaster and Barnsley have not yet conducted public consultations.

"You’ve got Sheffield and Rotherham that are much keener on the deal," says Simon Jeffrey, policy officer at the Centre for Cities think tank, who has been closely monitoring the situation. The other two authorities, he says, "are holding back [on the granting] of these powers – it is their strongest negotiating card in trying to get the government to bend to what they want to do".

To add to an already bizarre situation, Jarvis’ manifesto was dedicated to pursuing the One Yorkshire deal, although he also set out how he would govern if elected as Sheffield City Region mayor. The irony is that Jarvis now does not have the powers to implement those policies as a result of the position that he backed as MP for Barnsley and as a mayoral candidate.

The powers and resources that would be available to him if Barnsley and Doncaster were to fall into line are substantial. As originally agreed, the deal involved £900 million of investment over 30 years, access to the £1.7 billion Transforming Cities Fund – which the government says "aims to improve productivity" through investment in public transport in city-regions – and considerable powers over skills, transport and housing. It also included the ability to draw up a spatial plan for the area that could allow him to align infrastructure and housing more effectively and would have made the mayor a statutory consultee on major applications.

However, as things stand, Jarvis only really has control over buses due to the fact that these powers were passed down to metro mayors via a separate act of parliament to that used to confer the other mayoral powers. In terms of planning, this means that, until the devolution deal issue is resolved, Sheffield City Region as a body has no planning role.

Instead, any strategic thinking is done by a planning group made up of the heads of planning at the four authorities, plus seven other local councils. "[Sheffield City Region] doesn’t have a planning function," says Rob Murfin, chair of the group and chief planner at Sheffield City Council. "The duty to cooperate means that there is strategic planning thinking, but in terms of a statutory function that is still to be explored by the mayor."

However, Murfin adds that Jarvis fully understands the need for strategic planning, particularly when it comes to the interplay between infrastructure and housing. "His priorities are infrastructure, infrastructure… you can guess the third one," says Murfin when asked about Jarvis’ main concerns. "It’s about infrastructure to facilitate housing growth in a sustainable way."

Getting infrastructure right, of course, requires both planning powers and money – neither of which are currently available to Jarvis. So, what is being done to resurrect the deal? "We need to let the mayor get a handle on that," says Murfin. "There is an existing text for the devo deal and I think it’s for the mayor to look at that and see if it fits his priorities and his ambition."

Atam Verdi, chair of consultancy Aspinall Verdi, believes Jarvis will prioritise securing the existing deal before then trying to pursue his cherished One Yorkshire plan. "He could say ‘come on guys, get in the boat and start rowing together – we need to get some money into the region’," says Verdi. "At the top of his agenda will be trying to get some consensus among the four authorities."

Despite the impasse, life continues in the city-region, including in the vital field of strategic planning, with the planning group continuing to collaborate on issues such as housing and integrated infrastructure plans. How much power Jarvis can ultimately wield, however, remains to be seen.

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