DEVOLUTION: '˜It's time we let out voices be heard'
The leader of Derbyshire County Council has made a last ditch plea for the people of Chesterfield to make their voice heard in the devolution debate.
Anne Western says the decision on whether Chesterfield Borough Council joins up with nine other local authorities in the Sheffield City Region devolution deal is one of the biggest Derbyshire has ever faced.
She is worried that the deal is being rushed and not enough thought is going in to the implications of the plan on the way public services will be delivered in the future.
She said: “It is a shame that is has got to the stage that it has got to without the people of Chesterfield being able to understand what it really means.
“The biggest feedback we are getting from people is ‘where has all this come from’, ‘why didn’t we know about it’ and ‘where is it taking us’.
“These are the questions that people haven’t really got the answers to and when they go online and to the consultation events they are being told ‘it is just an economic deal’, ‘you don’t need to worry’ and ‘it is not involving other services’.
“Well, actually, it is and it will do more so in the future and we know that because the government and the Sheffield City Region are telling us that.
Coun Western is worried that the public services which have been shaped over many years by the authorities within Derbyshire will be ‘fractured’ by the deal with South Yorkshire.
Two of her main areas of concern are education and health, neither of which are currently covered by the deal, but - according to Coun Western - could be in the future.
“My biggest concern is the threat to services like education, health, police and fire services because we know that is the direction of travel that the government is pushing these mayors in,” she says.
An article in the Yorkshire Post from March said it was the Sheffield City region’s ambition is to get into to schools and drive up educational attainment - which she said is absolutely fine.
She said: “We then had a meeting in April where the chair of the Sheffield City Region, Stephen Houghton, started talking about the difference between Barnsley schools and Matlock schools and I was like, ‘hold on a minute - where is this coming from’.
“So it’s not just a Chesterfield issue this - it is about half of Derbyshire.
“I also learnt recently that a similar process is happening in the NHS with a proposal that Chesterfield Royal Hospital be included in the South Yorkshire set-up rather than Derbyshire.”
“It would then be one of five hospitals with A&Es in South Yorkshire and when they start to rationalise as they inevitably will because budgets are tight, I think Chesterfield Royal Hospital will be at risk.
“It is a small hospital in amongst some much bigger ones and if there is going to be cuts made where will they be made?”
Money - as always - is another bone of contention between Derbyshire, Chesterfield and the Sheffield City Region.
There have been many claims and counter claims throughout the debate but Coun Western uses the example of the Markham Vale development to illustrate that claims of an influx of money from the deal may not be all they seem.
“In 2014, Chesterfield Borough Council had to consider what they were going to do with the Markham Vale business rates,” she says.
“They could have kept it within Derbyshire but they chose to passport it across to the Sheffield City Region.
“That is going to be £900,000 of Derbyshire business rates going to the Sheffield City Region with no guarantee that any of that gets spent back in Derbyshire.”
“So Sheffield City Region is going to have to invest an awful lot back into Chesterfield just to make up for the £900,000 that is going the other way in the first place.”
Coun Western is angry at the suggestion that the situation could be resolved if she would just ‘get round the table’.
She says she has ‘made a big point’ of trying to work together with the Sheffield City Region but that she has had ‘the door closed in her face’.
“I can’t tell you how many time I have been to Rotherham and Barnsley and tried to play an active role,” she says.
“I have made formal offers on things like transport but those offers never got taken up and this time last year myself and the leader of Nottinghamshire got an email saying we weren’t invited to the meetings anymore.
“The door was closed by them at that point because what they were planning is directly detrimental to the county council.
“So it is actually being quite dishonest to say ‘come and sit at the table’ when you’ve already been told you are not welcome.”
Coun Western says events have put a strain on relationships across the two authorities but she remains hopeful that - with more time - a better deal can be struck.
“Next week there is a meeting where some of the chief executives are going down to London to speak to civil servants about devolution.
“We are trying to find out from the new government whether their opinion of all this has changed and whether we can get some sensible talk of a devolution deal for Derbyshire back on the table again.”
“But it just depends on how flexible they are prepared to be about it.”
“My main message is that there isn’t any need to rush - why don’t we take a bit longer and have a proper open discussion.”