Devolution in Yorkshire - a delayed shotgun wedding?

Chesterfield town centre
Image caption Chesterfield aspires to be part of a wider devolved region - but will lawyers scupper its ambitions?

It seemed almost inevitable that the controversial road to devolution in Yorkshire would involve barristers well before the ballot boxes could be brought out.

A High Court judge is now deliberating on whether voters in the proposed Sheffield City region will be going to the polls to elect their first executive mayor as planned on 4 May next year.

A deal was signed over a year ago between South Yorkshire's four big district authorities and the government which would see them form a city region and take on board a number of smaller local councils led by a directly elected mayor..

Chesterfield is one of those wanting to link up with its big neighbour but, as was argued in the High Court in London this week, there is a problem.

The former mining town, famous for its crooked spire and its colourful open market, is not actually in Yorkshire.

Chesterfield town hall is the headquarters of a lower-tier local authority in Derbyshire with many of its major services run by the much bigger county council.

It is not as if the South Yorkshire councils are kidnapping an unwilling new partner.

Funding at stake

Chesterfield Borough Council is all in favour of the match but down the road at County Hall in Matlock it is seen as a shotgun wedding.

Before heading to the courts Councillor Anne Western, the leader of Derbyshire County Council, said: "We don't believe the proposals are in the best interests of anyone living in Derbyshire - least of all people living in Chesterfield."

This is far more than a dispute over traditional county boundaries. It involves hard cash.

Chesterfield wants a chunk of the extra £30m a year of central government money which the new Sheffield City region's mayor will have to spend on improving transport; beefing up post-16 education and boosting business investment.

Derbyshire says it will lose the £1m a year in business rates which would be diverted to the new region as well as seeing a mayor from across the border controlling services it has been running since Victorian times.

Combining the coalfields

Exactly the same argument is being put forward by Nottinghamshire County Council which faces seeing Worksop-based Bassetlaw Council breaking away and joining the Sheffield City Region.

Councillor Alan Rhodes, Nottinghamshire County Council leader, says the move "makes no sense".

The leaders of the Combined Authorities which make up the Sheffield City region say completely the opposite. They believe that the economic and social links between what are largely the old coalfields straddling the South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire boundaries are the perfect fit.

In fact, in court, none of these arguments are the grounds for what is technically a judicial review of a decision taken by the government to allow a mayor-led devolved region to be set up.

The appeal is based on whether the legally-enforced formal consultation process organised by the councils gave enough information to local people and sufficient opportunities for objections to be made.

The High Court has now heard the evidence from both sides in a two-day hearing and is now considering its verdict. A decision is not expected until early December.

If Derbyshire wins the day it is thought possible that mayoral elections could go ahead on schedule with the smaller boundaries.

But the chances are that it would open the door to more legal challenges and long delays.

Meanwhile, there is no end in sight for the deadlock which is stopping any devolution deal being agreed for all the rest of Yorkshire.