LETTER: Future lies in building Sheffield relationship

It is not unreasonable that the leader of Derbyshire County Council should use your columns to reiterate her authority's view that the borough of Chesterfield should not join a region centred on Sheffield (Read Cllr Anne Western's letter here).

Thursday, 31st March 2016, 6:30 pm
Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Devolution plans
Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Devolution plans

I am surprised you do not hear more often from turkeys in the run-up to Christmas each year.

It is equally predictable, if wholly undesirable, that the county council should grasp at any passing straw and threaten legal action to reverse this decision.

It would be interesting to know how much taxpayers’ money the county has spent on finding a barrister clever enough to think up the one about ‘an equality impact assessment ... on people protected by anti-discrimination legislation etc.

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Presumably the borough will now have to spend more taxpayers’ money instructing equally ingenious counsel to find a way to defeat this. The law should be used to right wrongs and punish evildoers, not to prevent local authorities making policy decisions others disagree with.

Some of Coun Western’s points are very weak in my view. There is no such thing as a ‘Chesterfield economy’ or a ‘north Derbyshire economy’, nor for that matter a ‘North Midlands economy’. England and Wales are far too small to have local ‘economies’ and both the town and the rest of north-east Derbyshire are fully integrated into a national economy.

Chesterfield has never had close economic ties with either Nottingham or Derby, any link has always been purely administrative. Since the opening of the direct railway in 1870, Chesterfield has been drawn increasingly into a region centred on Sheffield, a far bigger city than Nottingham and the hub of a major conurbation, which Nottingham is not.

Chesterfield is 12 miles from Sheffield, half the distance from Derby or Nottingham. Coun Western is doubtless correct in saying that, of people living in Chesterfield who work outside the borough, more travel to work elsewhere in Derbyshire than to Sheffield.

What she does not say is where in Derbyshire. Leaving aside short-distance travel to other places in the north-east, I suspect a large number go to County Hall. This may well change in the next few years, as local government evolves, and this is not a reason for tying Chesterfield to a region that will be dominated by a city nearly 30 miles away, of which the town can never be more than a peripheral component.

Coun Western may also be right that the Government is considering the further dismemberment of counties, but her assumption that this is a bad thing is open to challenge. When county councils were established in 1889, they took over a limited range of functions from older authorities. For this reason, it was just about possible for Rutland and the West Riding of Yorkshire to be given identical powers and duties. No-one then foresaw the enormous expansion of the councils’ work in the 20th century, which now makes such an idea seem ridiculous.

In retrospect, a much better way of modernising local government would have been to develop the poor law unions created in 1834 into multi-purpose authorities.

The unions were rational units, that took no notice of county boundaries. Each was made up of a town plus the surrounding communities from which people normally travelled to that town for work, shopping and leisure. Thus the modern Chesterfield borough and (more or less) North East Derbyshire District formed a single union.

This area remains a rational unit for most local government services. It would make a perfectly viable unitary authority within a Sheffield region, alongside the old South Yorkshire metropolitan districts. As such, it would sit with them on equal terms, whereas at present Chesterfield is a second-tier authority handicapped by a difficult relationship with its county council (as is manifest, I would suggest, from Coun Western’s letter and her authority’s attempt to reverse the borough’s choice of which region to join).

Coun Western’s point that the two other north-eastern districts favour joining the Nottingham region is not a reason for Chesterfield to do the same.

It merely illustrates the very limited outlook of those authorities, who still associate the word ‘Sheffield’ with loss of territory and rate income.

Those days are over, or should be.

In my view, no-one with any interest in high quality local government would lament the disappearance of North East Derbyshire or Bolsover. The former could be absorbed into an enlarged Chesterfield authority, while the latter, an artificial construct of 1974, should be dismembered.

The northern parishes (the old Clowne rural district) properly belong in Bassetlaw (which also wishes to join the Sheffield region) and the southern parishes (formerly Blackwell rural district), which do ‘look’ to Nottingham in a way the rest of north-east Derbyshire does not, should be reabsorbed into an authority centred on Mansfield.

If the Government is determined to press ahead with a new kind of regionalisation (which in the past it has been against) Chesterfield’s future lies in building a constructive relationship with its nearest big neighbour and with Sheffield’s other satellites. Thanks to a shared recent history of coal mining and heavy engineering, and the need to rebuild communities following the decline of those industries, it has far more in common with Rotherham, Barnsley and the smaller towns of south Yorkshire than with the rest of Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire.

Philip Riden

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