Chesterfield’s decision to join the Sheffield City Region devolution deal has been thrown into fresh doubt after a High Court decision.
Earlier this year, Chesterfield Borough Council voted unanimously to become constituent members of a ‘combined authority’ of nine councils.
However, Derbyshire County Council took the Sheffield City Region to court in August, arguing the public consultation on the proposal was ‘misleading and flawed’.
Today, after a bitter war of words between the two bodies lasting many months, the Court upheld the County Council’s claims that the people of Chesterfield were not properly consulted.
The High Court Judge, Mr Justice Ouseley, ruled that the consultation failed to ask local people a direct question about whether or not they believed Chesterfield should become part of Sheffield City Region.
He said that this made the consultation unlawful and unfair and that ‘something had gone seriously and significantly wrong’.
The judge also stated that Sheffield City Region had provided no reasonable justification ‘as to why it had not included such an obvious and fundamental question in the questionnaire’.
Derbyshire County Council leader, Councillor Anne Western, hailed the verdict as ‘a victory for fairness and common sense’.
She said: “The people of Chesterfield knew this consultation was unfair and misleading and this High Court judgment confirms that.
“When the county council asked the question Sheffield City Region failed to ask - whether Chesterfield should join Sheffield - more than 7,500 people responded, with 92% opposed the plans.
“Taking action in the High Court was the last thing we wanted to do but unfortunately we were left with no other option to help us defend the right of local people to have their say on something so important.
“This is a victory for fairness and common sense and for the thousands of local people who - despite not being able to answer the question they wanted to in the official consultation - spoke up and made their views known loudly and clearly.”
If it went ahead, the devolution deal would give responsibility for a range of services in Chesterfield to the Sheffield City Region combined authority - and its mayor.
These include major roads, funding for maintenance and road safety on all roads in the borough, public transport, travel concessions, skills for employment and major planning and investment projects.
Responding to the High Court decision, Councillor John Burrows, leader of Chesterfield Borough Council, said: “We firmly believe that being part of the Sheffield City Region devolution deal offers the best way to grow Chesterfield’s economy and create jobs for our residents.
“We can all see the progress being made on site at the £320 million Waterside development and we have just signed the £2.4 million funding agreement to enable work to begin on the Peak Resort leisure development. These are real developments bringing real jobs and growth to Chesterfield, only made possible through funding from the Sheffield City Region.
“The judge’s decision confirms that the original public consultation process still stands, and also dismisses the majority of the complaints the county council made.
“What it does do is ask Sheffield City Region to carry out further public consultation about whether or not Chesterfield should become a full member of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority.
“We will support that process, as we did the previous extensive public consultation run by the Sheffield City Region.
“What is at stake is a share of at least £484 million over the next five years to those areas that want to be part of the Sheffield City Region deal.
“Each day that passes is a delay to that investment flowing into Chesterfield and Derbyshire, and the benefits it would bring to Derbyshire residents and businesses.
“There is no other devolution deal on the table. Council leaders elsewhere in Derbyshire still don’t want an elected mayor, which means there is no prospect of an alternative Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire deal.”
A spokesman for Sheffield City Region Combined Authority said: “This judgement confirms that our extensive and wide-ranging consultation will not be quashed.
“The judgement raised the need to carry out further consultation to address the proposed governance changes in Chesterfield.
“We will now take some time to consider the judgement and our next steps. We will make further public statements once we have had the opportunity to do this.”