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Devolution versus democracy? A report on Assembly North

The people of south Yorkshire want devolution - but they also want the process to be much more democratic.

Tracey Cheetham
23 November 2015
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For areas like south Yorkshire, devolution is fast approaching, but what are the views of the people who will be most affected by it and are the full impacts really known? 

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to take part in Assembly North, part of the Democracy Matters project. This involved just over thirty participants, drawn from each of the south Yorkshire districts, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.  

Democracy Matters is being organised by the University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University College London and University of Westminster, in conjunction with the Electoral Reform Society. Funding for the project has been obtained from the Economic and Social Research Council, so you can see, this was quite an exciting group to be a part of. There is another assembly taking part in Hampshire - Assembly South, where the participants are discussing the same issues from their perspective.  

Each session was hosted by BBC Yorkshire's Political Editor, Len Tingle, and we heard from academics, experts, council officers, politicians such as Sir Steve Houghton and Cllr Sioned-Mair Richards, and citizens who all have an interest in democracy and how it works in our region. We heard about everything from mayoral systems, national and regional governance and hyper-localism. Also in attendance at all sessions was Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, one of the partners in the Democracy Matters project.  

Prior to the assembly meeting for the first time, I read the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (SCRCA) Devolution Agreement. From that document, it was clear that there is still much detail to be worked out, but the over-arching powers that the SCRCA have requested from government seem to follow a logical plan.   

The issue I immediately saw as contentious, however, was the requirement for an elected mayor. The membership of the SCRCA comprises nine local authorities; the four south Yorkshire district councils as "constituent members", and the local authorities in Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire Dales and North East Derbyshire as "associate" or "non-constituent members". As I understand it, this is because only part of their geographical area falls within the SCRCA area, as other parts are closer to other combined authority areas or are not affected by the actions taken by the SCRCA. 

This is especially true of the transport element of the devolution agreement. Many people who live within the non-constituent authority areas will work, study or travel across the boundaries of the nine authorities and it makes sense for a regional arrangement to be in place, to make ticketing easier and reduce costs for residents.  

Now, this is where my democracy klaxon went off...  

Clearly, the residents in the non-constituent areas are going to be hugely affected by what is decided by the leader of the SCRCA – the elected mayor, who would be in place from 2017. However, the only people who get to vote in any mayoral election will be residents in the constituent local authority areas, i.e. Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. Essentially this is a south Yorkshire mayor. A south Yorkshire mayor who will have influence over a transport strategy and infrastructure that affects people in five other local authority areas.  

I'm facing the prospect of a south Yorkshire mayor that I had no power in electingIt sounds complex and clearly it is. Let's say I live in Chesterfield and work in Sheffield; I'm facing the prospect of a south Yorkshire mayor that I had no power in electing, but who will have a lot of power over significant things that affect my daily life. Where is my democracy? It's a key question that I am sure residents in the non-constituent areas will  ask. 

In terms of devolution, there seems to be an awareness in government of people wanting power to shift to a more local and therefore more accessible level. The problem is that at national level there seems to be a contradiction, in that devolution is promoted yet the powers are 'bestowed' and local areas should be grateful for it. Then, some national politicians argue that there are some things that devolved assemblies should not be allowed (trusted?) to decide on, such as the debate about abortion law in Scotland this week. The issue of exactly which laws and powers devolved assemblies are permitted to have by national politicians has a big impact on citizens. 

I'm not even going to mention EVEL and the potential for a similar situation where an MP can vote on legislation that affects other constituencies, but not his or her own, because that power has been devolved to a combined authority! 

But, back to Democracy Matters...  

In south Yorkshire, Assembly North members enjoyed robust discussions and a very broad exchange of views from across the political spectrum. We met four four days, spread over two weekends, three weeks apart.   

This reflects the fact that people are not afraid of tackling difficult topics, in fact they actively want to be consulted and listened to on key issues. One of the common complaints was that politicians generally do not consult with us enough.

After considering evidence, information and opinion, we took a number of votes, to ascertain what our preferred model of governance was. Maybe unsurprisingly, the majority voted for even stronger powers to be devolved to a Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Assembly. Some of the participants were very clear on that being an assembly with powers similar to those devolved to Scotland; an assembly with teeth, that has genuine powers handed down from national government. 

We took a number of votes and in each the majority of Assembly Members voted for the following:

  • (1) A directly elected regional assembly
  • (2) Stronger powers that would include some tax-setting and law-making powers; this is to ensure actual power is achieved over issues such as transport infrastructure, economic development and education.

And:

  • (3) To reject the devolution deal currently on offer for the Sheffield City Region and press local politicians to push for a better deal (stronger, more ambitious, more democratic and based on proper consultation) rather than walk away from devolution completely.  

There were a lot of differing views on how best to ensure efficiency, accountability and, importantly, delivery of services at local level. Many people I spoke with were in favour of a combination approach to governance with an element of localism and an additional layer of governance at regional level, to make sure that the relevant powers were being exercised at the most effective place in the structure. 

One thing that was absolutely apparent though, and forgive me for stating the obvious, is that greater democratic engagement is vital to make any system of devolution work effectively. There was a general consensus on the need for electoral reform and agreement on our table at least, that this would be a key way to generate meaningful engagement, with the electorate knowing that each of them had a vote that could make a difference. That said, we had a room full of people who were anything but disengaged or apathetic; frustrated, curious and some even angry about politics in general, but all of them determined to have a say. 

 

This article was first published at TChee.

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