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Sheffield City Region mayor election – a long journey, but was it worth it?

 

Busy sports hall – check. Hordes of bored-looking journalists – check. Groups of stressed-out candidates and agents – check. To an outsider, the election count in Sheffield on Friday 4th May looked much like any other election count taking place in hundreds of authorities across the country. But the election of Dan Jarvis as the first mayor of Sheffield City Region was in fact the end of a long, and at times rocky, journey along the road to devolution.

This journey began some six years ago, with Sheffield being part of the first wave of City Deals to get the go-ahead from central government. Building on this, two Growth Deals were agreed with government, with funds being given to the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) for projects to benefit the local area and economy. The first wave of Growth Deals was announced in July 2014 and government then expanded the deals in January 2015, investing a further £1 billion in local economies across England.

Sheffield City Region was, by all measures, a front-runner in the devolution race. And the biggest step was the ‘Devolution Deal’ signed in October 2015, which appeared decisive in terms of the transfer of resources and powers away from central government to the Sheffield City Region. A mayor in May 2017 was supposed to follow. But when the other mayoral combined authorities held their elections, Sheffield City Region found itself bogged down in legal challenges, followed by disagreements between the leaders of the four South Yorkshire authorities on how to proceed. These delays led to a new election date of May 2018 – at which point we found ourselves in that sports hall with Dan Jarvis making his victory speech. So was the journey worth it? And why does all this matter? 

The fact is, it certainly mattered to the higher-than-anticipated number of the electorate who turned out to vote. Mayors present a major shift in local political control, in a country with one of the most politically centralised systems. Mayoral devolution can be seen as the latest attempt at meaningful devolution of responsibilities, following previous failed attempts over the last 20 years, such as regional assemblies.

Importantly, metro mayors are at the right scale for the issues they are dealing with. Put simply, if you want to achieve change in economic growth, you need to work at scale across the right geography. This does not mean that all problems and their associated solutions follow the same spatial level, and mayors need to be flexible and adaptive to working across and within boundaries if they want to affect real change. But an understanding of the right geography for each issue is crucial.

This first few weeks of the new mayor’s term has been a whirlwind of briefings and establishing ways of working. For the majority of the combined authority staff, they will not have seen any change to their day-to-day working lives. Indeed most may not see much of a change in the direction their work is taking them. Inward investment is still inward investment, just as business growth is still business growth. Many priorities remain the same.

For those members of staff used to working in a political environment, this should not come as a surprise. The mayor, in some ways, is no different to a leader within a local authority, who the majority of council staff often do not have any involvement or engagement with.

But combined authorities and LEPs are made up of staff from a variety of backgrounds, and for some, the election of a mayor will be the first time they have worked in an environment serving a political master. This can often be seen as a constraining influence, especially for those used to working with relative autonomy, but it should rather be seen as an enabling influence. As such for leaders within Mayoral Combined Authorities, learning to manage within a political environment will be an important skills set.

A mayor who is operating effectively should be able to unlock doors previously closed, shine light on issues or put more momentum behind others, but ultimately is someone who can make things happen, and that is what the majority of economic development professionals got into the industry to do.

Mark Lynam is a Board Member of the Institute of Economic Development, and Director of Programme Commissioning at Sheffield City Region

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