South Yorkshire council leaders spurn invite to devolution debate

Ros Jones and Sir Steve Houghton
Ros Jones and Sir Steve Houghton

The leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster councils have refused to go head to head with their counterparts in Sheffield and Rotherham over devolution.

The Star and Doncaster Free Press teamed up with BBC Radio Sheffield, the Barnsley Chronicle and the Rotherham Advertiser in an attempt to bring the heads of the four authorities together for a debate on the highly divisive topic.

Sheffield and Rotherham council leaders Julie Dore and Chris Read agreed to take part in the discussion, which is due to take place next Monday evening and will be broadcast on BBC Radio Sheffield.

But Doncaster mayor Ros Jones and Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton both spurned the invitation to get involved and win 'hearts and minds' for their plans.

All four councils had signed up to the Sheffield City Region devolution deal, described as the biggest change to local democracy in many years, under which a directly-elected mayor would be given £900 million to spend over 30 years.

But while Sheffield and Rotherham councils remain on board with the agreement signed in 2015, Doncaster and Barnsley have withdrawn their support.

They are now considering new proposals for Yorkshire-wide devolution, which were backed in August by 17 out of 20 local authorities, and they have invited residents to choose their preferred deal.

The Star and Doncaster Free Press, along with their media partners, had hoped to bring all four leaders together for next Monday's debate to help people across South Yorkshire make up their minds.

But in a joint response to organisers, Ms Jones and Mr Houghton said they were willing to discuss devolution with other parties but were not prepared to engage in a radio debate.

"I'm sorry that you do not currently wish to accept the offer from Sir Steve and I to undertake interviews for local media regarding the community polls in Barnsley and Doncaster, although that option remains open to you should you choose to accept it," wrote Ms Jones.

The Star's editor Nancy Fielder said: "This is the first time the media of South Yorkshire have worked together in a bid to build bridges, inform readers and listeners, and get our area moving forward.

"I am saddened that there will be the council leaders from Barnsley and Doncaster won't take part but we will do our best to represent their areas, as always."

Both Barnsley and Doncaster councils have written to householders asking for their views on devolution as part of a consultation, costing them a reported £120,000 each, which will run until December 20.

They claim Yorkshire-wide devolution would potentially unlock £3 billion over the next 30 years to spend on transport, housing and other areas, while the Sheffield City Region plan would be worth £1.3 billion over the same period.

Councillors Dore and Read have argued any deal other than the existing Sheffield City Region one would result in devolved powers for the area being diluted.

Elections for a Sheffield City Region mayor are scheduled to take place next year, though if that devolution deal fails to win the backing of all the councils involved the winner could end up with no powers.