'How HS2 Sheffield Station saga helped derail devolution hopes'

FOR those involved in ongoing efforts to win Government backing for the '˜One Yorkshire' devolution plan involving 17 local councils to date, there is a vital lesson about the importance of a united front to be learnt from the acrimonious collapse of the rival £900m deal for the Sheffield City Region.

Sheffield Station
Sheffield Station

The once highly-vaunted South Yorkshire deal, promoted by then-Chancellor George Osborne in October 2015, finally hit the buffers on Monday after Barnsley and Doncaster councils pulled out of the planned partnership, preferring instead to take their chances as part of the ‘One Yorkshire’ idea with 15 other local authorities that is yet to secure Government support.

Speaking after the meeting, Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore said she felt betrayed and spoke of a “serious failure of trust”, claiming that the towns and cities involved should have worked together in the best interests of South Yorkshire instead of pursuing their own agendas.

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To add insult to injury, a £1m mayoral election that was planned as a key part of the devolution process is, farcically, still scheduled to take place next year to elect a politician with no powers.How this painful situation has come to pass deserves scrutiny and can be traced back to the row over the idea of a new HS2 station at Meadowhall.

Sheffield Council complaining of broken trust, and suggesting issues of this importance should be decided on the basis of regional rather than local interest, does not tally with how it acted in the battle over where the area’s high-speed station should be located.

The HS2 fight also perhaps provides an explanation as to why Doncaster and Barnsley’s leaders thought they would be better off rolling the dice on being part of ‘One Yorkshire’ instead of being tied to their near neighbours for the next three decades.

In January 2013, the Government announced that a new HS2 station would be built at Meadowhall, close to the shopping centre to the north of Sheffield. It was intended there would be a five-minute rail link to the city centre as part of the package. Then Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg hailed the announcement with a speech at Meadowhall describing HS2 as a way of “healing this north-south divide that we have had in our economy for far, far too long”.

He said alternative plans for a station in the city centre would be too expensive – a view backed at the time by local business leaders who said that the Meadowhall option would be better for the whole region “on balance”.

That was a view shared in Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster – but Sheffield Council spearheaded a concerted campaign to get the station moved to the city centre on the grounds that the economic benefits would be far superior.

It is worth noting that campaign was stepped up in late 2015 and into 2016 – months after the four Labour-led local authorities, plus Bassetlaw and Chesterfield Councils, had signed up to the intended £900m devolution deal.

It meant that at the same time Sheffield City Region partners were preparing to work much more closely together for 30 years overseen by a new mayor, they were simultaneously squabbling over where an HS2 station supposed to be a key driver of the local economy was going to be based.

Sheffield Council won the battle for a city centre location for HS2 last summer but it was a rather Pyrrhic victory. Instead of a new station being built as had been hoped, the Meadowhall option was scrapped in favour of HS2’s cheaper option of adopting the existing station to support high-speed trains.

The council continues to claim this is preferable to Meadowhall, but the simple facts are that there is no dedicated new station in the city or the wider area, Sheffield is now not on the main HS2 route and trains to London will take longer than those from Leeds 40 miles to the north, while running less frequently.

HS2 boss Sir David Higgins subsequently revealed flooding problems meant a new station in the city centre was simply not viable without “massive expenditure”; prompting questions as to how realistic the idea ever truly was.

Even worse for the rest of the region, the revised HS2 route passing through the Rotherham and Doncaster areas runs directly through previously-unaffected homes, businesses, farmland and even a new housing estate – while those areas get none of the benefit of a local station.

The inability to reach a united position on HS2 has cost South Yorkshire and that row in turn laid the foundations for the collapse of the devolution deal. It means that South Yorkshire – an area listed in recent years as the fifth poorest in the whole of Northern Europe – will currently miss out on both a £900m package of devolved powers over transport, planning and skills, supposed to bring thousands of new jobs to the region, and a HS2 station to call its own.

For the political leaders now pursuing the One Yorkshire option, the lessons are clear; reaching agreements and compromises that suit multiple councils will rarely be easy – but the alternative is much worse.