On the evening of September 7, I attended the meeting of Chesterfield Borough Council (CBC) in the town hall. The only substantive issue on the agenda concerned the decision taken earlier by the council that Chesterfield should become a full member of the Sheffield City Region (SCR) combined authority. Since that decision was taken, however, the political landscape at Westminster has changed and the new Prime Minister and cabinet would appear to have a much more flexible approach to devolution deals.
In particular, it seems that central government may now consider devolution deals based on counties and also devolution deals that do not insist on an elected mayor.
So, I attended the CBC meeting hoping that I would find a council that is willing to recognise that things have changed, that is willing to put the decision to join SCR on hold and that is prepared to put some energy and effort into seeking a devolution deal for Derbyshire preferably without an elected mayor.
I was disappointed. What I found was a council that is determined to stick to the SCR deal - beaten men (and women) sticking to the beaten path. Put simply, the council meeting endorsed the decision that Chesterfield should become a full member of SCR. If that happens, I predict two things. First, Chesterfield will not do well financially. In competition with Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley, guess who will get the bulk of any available funding? Of course there will be a few crumbs from the South Yorkshire table for Chesterfield, especially when the mayor needs to fight an election but, overall, this town will be at the back of the queue for funding I feel.
Second, I believe the elected mayor will seek greater and greater power. That is the nature of all political animals and the mayor in Sheffield will be no different. All other elected mayors in England have sought and gained greater powers and the SCR mayor will do exactly the same over time.
The proposed deal is being challenged by Derbyshire County Council which does not consider that it is in the best interests of local people. What local people think of the decision will never be fully known as the leader of CBC reiterated, we will not be given a referendum on this issue.
Apparently the council elections last year served as a referendum despite one councillor at the meeting publicly admitting that, when he was elected in 2015, he knew little about SCR. One just has to wonder how, if he knew so little about it, he was able to explain the issue to his constituents?
The final irony, therefore, is that the nature of the devolution deal for Chesterfield that is supposed to move power from central government to local authorities will be decided not by local politicians, not by local people but by a secretary of state in Westminster. And, if this secretary of state decides to support the decision of our borough council to become a full member of the Sheffield City Region, what we saw at the meeting was, I fear, the beginning of the end of Chesterfield as a proud Derbyshire town.