15 mins with Dave Smith, MD of Sheffield city region

Dave Smith is managing director of Sheffield city region, where he heads up the combined authority and the local enterprise partnership. He talks to New Start about the potential of devolution.


There’s a lot of talk in local government about the divide between the Leps and the combined authorities. Is it important that this divide is bridged?
It’s really important that they have distinctive roles, because they can both bring opportunities and strengths. The advantage I have is in spanning the two, I can find the spaces where they understand each other better and you can appeal to a sense of co-operation, rather than allow significant divides to develop. The great advantage of a Lep is that it has to look at the whole economy, so it’s a really useful vehicle. But you are dealing with a group of business people, who often have not had exposure to the trials and tribulations of public policy making. I also think it’s important that the business members of Leps understand and respect the issues that arise when you have to be accountable for public expenditure.

Do you think business leaders understand the opportunities of devolution?
I think they recognise the basic principle that if you want to grow food well, you should give the task to a hungry man. If you live and work in a region, which you know is under-performing economically, then you are closer to the issues and more driven to make a difference. However, enlightened or supportive decision-makers might be hundred of miles away, they won’t have the same level of appetite for change at a local level. Secondly, business leaders don’t feel the need at a local level to make everything standardised. They understand the nuances that might make a big difference in the Sheffield city region.

What are the biggest issues facing the Sheffield city region?
The most challenging issue for us is around skills. We simply have too many people in the region with insufficiently developed skills, who either can’t access the labour market effectively, or are accessing it at low levels, with little prospect of career development. In the Sheffield city region, throughout the boom years of the early 2000s, there was actually a net loss of jobs. That has now turned around and interestingly the biggest proportion of value added jobs have come from advanced manufacturing, which we didn’t expect, but the biggest challenge is sustaining the labour supply to develop it.

Is it a case of a ‘two-pronged attack’ by targeting both school leavers and older adults?
Working age people who face changes in career for whatever reasons are much more adaptable than they were a generation or two ago. The biggest problem we’ve got is with young people, who don’t have significant work experience and can’t adapt that to new situations. We’ve always argued that providing us with devolved powers to intervene in adult education programmes is good and helpful, but the intervention would be so much more effective at a younger age. If we were able to help drive the relationship between schools and businesses then you make the relationship between attainment and job opportunities much more real and alive.

How important is it that economic growth in the region is inclusive?
That’s part of the symbiosis between the Lep and the combined authority. Clearly, the combined authority wants to see the fruits of growth benefit the local population. From the Lep side, it’s important that businesses are confident there is a strong labour supply to support the growth of their businesses. So the two come together for us. You can’t successfully grow your economy and include people by just looking inside your own region for growth and employment. You need a range of skills and interests. It’s one of our key outcome measures – not just how much travel-to-work is happening within the region, but also between this region and other parts of the north.

What are the city region’s ambitions around housing?
The housing market is very challenged in our region, with some exceptions. We haven’t got the right range of homes, which at one end of the spectrum are affordable to people in general and at the other end of the spectrum are attractive to those who are seeking to move into the region, either as employers or employees. It’s a different set of challenges than an overheated housing market in the south east or London, but for us, mobilising the housing market is really important.

There’s been talk about a wider Yorkshire devolution deal. What are your thoughts on this?
There’s clearly an interest among a number of councils, but by no means all. I think those authorities want to explore the opportunity. Whether that opportunity can be realised and over what time frame is a moot question at the moment. It’s probably too early at the moment to know how these things will play and what decisions individual local authorities will make. There has to be an economic affinity between those areas and some of that already works on a much wider scale. If you take the tourism agenda, that’s already a strong offer across Yorkshire and makes sense to be joined up. Some of the more local issues might be different in various parts of the region. I hope the local authorities will look at the totality of the opportunity here and work out a way of doing it that makes sense for all.


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