‘Like blocks of granite’ – Outgoing business boss launches scathing attack on South Yorkshire council leaders

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An outgoing business boss has launched a scathing verbal attack on South Yorkshire’s four council leaders referring to them as ‘blocks of granite’. 

Sir Nigel Knowles, who is stepping down as the region’s chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) said he had witnessed ‘the worst short-sightedness’  from the four Labour leaders over the  2015 devolution deal.

Outgoing LEP chair Sir Nigel Knowles has hit out at the four South Yorkshire council leaders. Picture: Andrew Roe

Outgoing LEP chair Sir Nigel Knowles has hit out at the four South Yorkshire council leaders. Picture: Andrew Roe

He added the unsigned deal, which unlocks millions of pounds of devolved cash and powers, was the ‘self-inflected form of handbrake’ which has led to the ‘failure of political leadership’.

The comments were set out in an outgoing letter seen by Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis, Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore, Doncaster mayor Ros Jones, Rotheram Council leader Chris Read and Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton.

Council leaders from Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster all signed a deal with the then Chancellor George Osborne for devolved powers and £900 million in cash over 30 years.

But Doncaster and Barnsley announced they wanted to ditch the deal on offer and support a wider Yorkshire deal - something which currently isn't on offer by the Government.

This has meant SCR mayor Dan Jarvis has been left with little powers and a huge task of getting this over the line.

The letter does praise the region and the LEP for helping acquire McLaren, Boeing and 360 Degrees Media along with supporting investment in homegrown businesses such as Forgemasters steel works. 

In the letter, Sir Nigel said: “Over the last three years I have witnessed the worst of parochialism and short-sightedness from our council leaders.

"The last three years it is an entirely self-inflicted form of a handbrake that acts as a drag on our economic performance and potential.

"That handbrake is the failure of political leadership in the region to deliver the 2015 Devolution Deal.

"We need our council leaders to be less like blocks of granite in their approach."

Sir Nigel did defend Mayor Jarvis’s position and said he was ‘not the architect of the current impasse’ and he is ‘dependent on a spirit of cooperation, understanding and commitment from council leaders and a real bipartisan approach from the business community’.

The Mayor of Doncaster Ros Jones said: “I would like to place on record my thanks to Sir Nigel for his dedication to the region and his commitment to improving its economic fortunes.

“Doncaster has certainly played its part in being a catalyst and attractive destination for innovative industry and I thank him for recognising that.

“However when it comes to the matter of devolution, like others in the South Yorkshire region and beyond, we steadfastly believe that a Yorkshire wide devolution deal outweighs the benefits of a Sheffield centric one and I, for one, have been clear and consistent in voicing that view – whether around the table with SCR partners or to Government ministers.

“That said, we are alive to the fact that the Sheffield City Region deal has to happen and by doing so will enable us all to benefit from a bigger and more prosperous and economically attractive future as part of Yorkshire PLC.”

Rotherham Council leader coun Chris Read, said: “It is entirely reasonable and understandable that Nigel expresses his frustration in this way.

“Our collective inability to do what needs to be done in order to secure the tens of millions of pounds of investment available for jobs and the South Yorkshire economy - especially in a time of austerity - is a grave failing.

“I sincerely hope that his letter serves as a reminder that that the current impasse is utterly unsustainable and we must not allow it to drift on any longer."

Coun Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, said: “We thank Sir Nigel Knowles for the work he’s done over the last three years.

“In relation to devolution, residents and businesses of Barnsley and Doncaster are clear that they want the widest possible Yorkshire footprint for devolution. They have confirmed that in consultation and via a community poll held in December 2017. 

“We’ve always been clear with Government and our City Region partners that a One Yorkshire devolution deal may take some time to put in place. 

“We remain willing to implement the Sheffield City Region deal as an interim arrangement but only in the context of an understanding and acknowledgement that our longer-term future lies in Yorkshire, beyond an artificial county boundary which is not an economic footprint and is no longer fit for purpose.

“In the meantime, we’ll continue to work constructively with the Sheffield City Region as we have done over the past few years”. 

Sheffield Council did not comment.