“Do not confuse devolution with democracy”

An article written just prior to a rushed vote on devolution in the West Midlands, very similar to that we experienced in East Devon – rubber stamping in double-quick time a done deal:

“Typical of councillors! Offer them a generous 7½ seconds each to discuss the most radical and controversial change in the region’s governance in a generation – the creation of a West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) with a directly elected mayor – and they want longer writes Chris Game.

In fact, twice as long: 15 seconds each, or a whole indulgent half-hour, in which to do their petty political point-scoring.

No wonder the council’s normally equable chief executive, Mark Rogers, sounded slightly tetchy as he explained to these latter-day Oliver Twists that 15 seconds per member couldn’t possibly be seen as stifling debate – adding (although this bit wasn’t reported) that when Oliver asked for more, the workhouse master had attacked him with a ladle and threatened him with hanging.

Clearly, the councillors had misunderstood their place in the scheme of things. They’ve lost the plot – in all senses.

They’ve heard, endlessly, about Chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Devolution Revolution’ and his ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

They’ve been understandably thrilled at having, or at least sharing with the East Mids, their very own Midlands Tank – sorry, Midlands Engine, “fired up” (honestly, this bit I’m not making up!) to drive £34 billion-worth of productivity and growth.

They’ve followed assiduously the ‘will they, won’t they?’ deliberations of Coventry, Solihull, Coventry, Tamworth, Redditch, Coventry and the rest about whether they’ll join the WMCA and with what status.

They’ve then put 2 and 2 together and come up with something close to 7.
Distracted by all this excitement, they ignored the hardening evidence of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA), and the fact that all serious negotiations seemed to be with not DCLG but Treasury civil servants.

Somehow they confused all this devolution stuff with local democracy. They assumed that, as our locally elected democratic representatives, they’d have some say sometime about the structure and operation of these new institutions.

And now they’ve got that say – their potential 15 seconds of fame – at the March 1 full council meeting, in which, in addition to setting out their own views, they can draw on the less than effusive responses to the WMCA’s public consultation exercise. Yet still they complain – and of course they’re dead right.

But also dead wrong, for that failure fully to grasp what was actually happening. Their role in this exercise of supposedly giving the great cities of England control of their own affairs is little greater than that of us Clancy citizens. Indeed, we were ‘consulted’ first, and given as long as we liked to answer our five questions.

So what has been happening? First, let’s dispense with the ludicrous ‘revolution’ hype, as surely would Osborne himself, had the easy rhyme not proved irresistible.

Anything remotely approaching a revolution would necessarily include a substantial plank of fiscal devolution, would be underpinned by a subsidiarity presumption in favour of devolving functions unless there were compelling reasons not to, and would contain some formula for lastingly rebalancing the relationship between central and local government.

This policy does none of these. So forget revolution; it’s debateable – the Greater Manchester deals apart, and taking account of its covert motives – whether it clears the ‘genuinely radical’ bar.

Osborne’s devolution is a party politically inspired, top-down, Treasury-driven, ministerially managed, lightweight personal ego trip that by the day looks as much concerned with surreptitiously reorganising and unitarising sub-central government as with strengthening and empowering it.

None of which means that what’s on offer isn’t hugely more promising than anything contemplated by previous governments, or that local government shouldn’t make the most of CA devolution deals while the offers stay open. It does mean, though, staying awake and smelling the coffee.

In fairness, even ministers describe the key legislation – the recently passed Cities and Local Government Devolution Act – as an enabling Act. What they don’t emphasise as much is that they’re the ones who decide who is to be enabled to do what, with whom, and under what conditions.

Paul Dale’s summary of the Act, though brief, captured its essence, provided you paid attention to the verbs. Its main purposes are to:

• Pave the way for elected mayors to chair CA areas;

• Allow the devolution of functions, including transport, health, skills, planning and job support;

• Ensure Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) play a leading role in CA governance;

• Enable the creation of Sub-national Transport Bodies (STBs) to advise the Government on strategic schemes and investment priorities in their own area.

As Paul noted, that last one is particularly interesting, partly because it was one of several major Government amendments to the original Bill, and partly because, though added chiefly for the benefit of Transport for the North, it will enable the Midlands Connect partnership of local authorities also to be placed on a statutory footing.

Check out those verbs, though. These STBs are bodies enabled by ministers to advise ministers, and whose advice they presumably may or may not take.
Similarly, whose approval is required for the creation of a CA? Who ultimately decides whether a particular permutation of authorities is acceptable, which functions should be devolved, a CA’s form of governance and accountability, whether an elected mayor requires referendum approval, whether a non-mayoral CA is permissible, what constitutes a ‘leading role’ for LEPs?

Ministers, every time – though increasingly it would seem, certainly in the Treasury, their civil servants. Yes, it IS devolution – a form of political decentralisation, but one in which CAs are kept on even tauter strings by their ministerial puppeteers than are local authorities.

Given which, you can see Mark Rogers’ point about a half-hour debate being ample for what’s required. The ‘devolution deal’ already exists – signed without, as it happens, any input from the present council leader, let alone from councillors generally.

Their collective role on March 1 is to seal and deliver it, to take it or leave it, and, as Rogers implied, that takes a less than 15-minute vote. To grit their teeth, forget local democracy, and think DEVOLUTION.

But don’t take my word for it. Oldham’s new MP is the council’s former leader, Jim McMahon. As an architect of the Northern Powerhouse, the jewel in Osborne’s devolution crown, he might have been expected in his recent maiden speech to sing its praises. He didn’t (Jan 19, Col. 1369):

The hallmark of devolution so far has been a Treasury power grab from other ministries. The Chancellor had the opportunity to devolve real financial freedoms, but he chose not to. He is quick to give away the power of his fellow Ministers … [but] not that keen on giving away his own. Without genuinely reforming central government and addressing fair funding, the Northern Powerhouse as a brand is meaningless.

Further evidence of who calls the shots? In the past week alone:

1. East Anglia’s councils were told by Communities Secretary Greg Clark that Norfolk and Suffolk couldn’t have a devolution deal – separately, together, or even with Cambridgeshire. Only a full 3-county, 23-council bid including Peterborough would be even considered, and that preferably with an elected mayor.

2. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight have lost, certainly for the present, their 15-council CA deal, having attempted to tell ministers that a metro-type mayor isn’t the right model for their large, diverse and extensively rural area.

3. Cumbria’s devolution deal also stalled over ministers’ insistence on elected mayors, the county council leader told Local Government Chronicle, after a “very disappointing meeting with the Treasury”.

It’ll come as no consolation to Birmingham councillors, but theirs are far from the only voices not being heard in these devolution deliberations.”

The Chamberlain Files, 19 February 2016

“How to make rural devolution work”

“The IPPR notes that public service reform has been just as big a driver as economic growth for many counties seeking devolution deals. Not least because of their older population profiles and the scale of the challenge they face to sustain health and social care services.

But the added complexities of shire areas may slow or stifle devolution ambitions. The mixed geographies of some mean that residents may associate themselves with different local identities. Local government structures may be two tier (or three tier if one includes the town and parish level). …

… Their report sees merit in devolution deals being struck for areas which are coterminous with LEP boundaries, where they are largely economic deals. Logical in one sense, but whether this would be practical in governance terms is questionable. The authors do acknowledge that some LEP boundaries need rationalising, which at the very least must be so where they overlap. They also conclude that the role and remit of LEPs would soon benefit from review.”

http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/opinion/making-devolution-work-for-rural-areas

Devolution: Dissent all over the land – including an ex-Tory Cabinet Minister and MPs

The devolution revolution will move from the cities to the countryside next week, when at least one group of English counties is handed new powers in Wednesday’s Budget.

An “Eastern powerhouse” of Norfolk, Suffolk, rural Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is likely to be unveiled, the Financial Times understands. Cambridge city is, however, unlikely to participate in the new arrangement, according to people familiar with the discussions.

A second grouping, consisting of Southampton, Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight and parts of rural Hampshire, may also be sealed in time to be announced by George Osborne. Cumbria, too, could get the go-ahead next week.

But the announcements will fall short of the chancellor’s original hopes, amid a growing rebellion by MPs and councillors in the Tory shires. Some are said to believe they are being pushed to agree deals to meet a political timetable even if they lack a clear regional logic.

Mr Osborne, who has placed the devolution of power at the centre of his attempt to rebalance the economy, is now under mounting pressure from his own side to slow the pace.

One senior Conservative MP said he and his colleagues were “very angry” that a plan conceived for metropolitan areas was being expanded to the rural Tory heartland. “They were given all these assurances that it was just a solution for the Labour northern cities, it wouldn’t be applied to them, but now it is being applied to them,” added the MP.

North Midlands, which groups the districts and county councils in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, was thought closest to a deal. But in recent weeks six of the 19 councils that signed up have pulled out.
Two have opted to join the Sheffield city region deal, one has applied to join Greater Manchester while three rural Conservative-run councils have left, fearing domination by the big cities and, according to one person familiar with the situation, the potential advent of a non-Tory mayor.
“They are not all that enthused about being swallowed up by two big county councils in the two cities,” said Ken Clarke, former chancellor and MP for Rushcliffe.

Mr Clarke has emerged as a key opponent of Mr Osborne’s plans, though he says he is “open to persuasion”. He said the North Midlands deal was mired in confusion and that few MPs, whether Conservative or Labour, were in favour of it.

Progress has also stalled in Yorkshire. The five Labour-run metropolitan authorities of West Yorkshire have a history of working together and believed they could mount a coherent bid. A second includes four neighbouring district councils that form the Leeds city region.

But 13 Conservative MPs have lobbied for a “Greater Yorkshire” bid covering the Tory-supporting rural north and east, as well as Hull.
Conservative-run North Yorkshire has refused to devolve transport powers to Craven, Harrogate and Selby, which would allow them to implement a Leeds city region bid.

Harrogate voted to back that bid regardless in a heated meeting last week
Don Mackenzie, a North Yorkshire county councillor, told the meeting: “The reason Greater Yorkshire is not going forward is the leaders of the Leeds city region do not want it to go forward as it would lead to a Conservative mayor.”

The chancellor’s devolution programme is stirring increasing resentment among his own backbenches. Kevin Hollinrake, a Conservative MP who represents the North Yorkshire seat of Thirsk and Malton, said there was “a real concern” that devolution deals could “cherry-pick” parts of a region and “leave the rest out on a limb”.

The reallocation of powers in areas such as transport to devolved mayors risked eroding the role of existing local government structures, he said. It was “a huge potential issue for the county councils” — nearly two-thirds of which are Conservative-controlled.

The Centre for Cities has also warned Mr Osborne that he should restrict devolution deals to big cities.

If the primary aim of devolution is to improve the economic performance of the national economy as rapidly as possible then the ever-growing importance of cities means that the devolution agenda must retain an urban focus,” Alexandra Jones, its chief executive, wrote in a letter to Mr Osborne seen by the FT.

She added: “It is important that the geography of the deal reflects the functional economy as much as possible rather than encompassing too broad a geography.”

Source: Financial Times via South Devon Watch Facebook Group

The new west-country dissenters

First in East Devon we had Communities Before Developers

Then we had East Devon Alliance

then there was East Devon Watch

Followed by Facebook Group South Devon Watch

NOW we see a new Cornwall group:

http://yourkidsfuturecorn.wix.com/yourkidsfuture

which recently took out a full-page advert in their regional newspaper to protest over-development, lack of infrastructure and decimation of public services

and we have national group Community Voice on Planning

In these groups, we are members of all political parties and none, all classes, all ethnic groups – and we are gaining strength in numbers all the time.

Devon Chamber of Commerce meets LEP members, but not a love-in!

SOUTH WEST businesses want devolution of powers to the region – but they fear tax hikes and want some control over decisions.

About 100 people attended the first Devon Chamber of Commerce’s Excellence in Devon Business Conference where a key debate on centred on regional devolution.

And George Cowcher, the chamber’s chief executive, said: “The overwhelming view was that decisions taken locally are preferred to decisions taken in London.

“But business needs to be more involved than it is at the moment.”

He added: “The big question is how business engages with that and make sure it influences (devolution).

“There is nervousness about local determination of business rates.

“Business needs to be highly influential over these decisions.”

He said there is a key role for organisations such as Devon Chamber of Commerce to play.

“The devolution deal is about improving productivity,” he said. “Business needs a dialogue.”

A panel discussed the devolution issue and featured Julia Goldsworthy, former Lib Dem MP and now decentralisation driver at PWC; Chris Garcia, chief executive of Heart of the South West LEP, and Tony Greenham, director of economy, enterprise and manufacturing at the RSA.

The discussion was facilitated by Dr Adam Marshall, acting director general of British Chambers of Commerce.

“He was giving a national perspective and was keen to see this new chamber put Devon on the map,” Mr Cowcher said.

The conference, held at Exeter Racecourse, attracted businesses from across the county, including Plymouth.

There were speakers from organisations including Plymouth University, Met Office, hotelier The Brend Group, and Newton Abbot’s Westaway Sausages Ltd.

Businesses were attracted from sectors including tourism, hospitality, manufacturing and digital.

Sponsored by Redrok UK and Wessex RFCA, the conference also included a mini business expo and a networking lunch.”

http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/SW-biz-wants-say-devolved-powers/story-28906567-detail/story.html

Northumberland has its doubts about LEPs and devolution – particularly as applied to rural areas and Brexit

“The North East devolution deal should be put on hold until after the EU referendum when the status of local authority funding is clear, Labour leaders in Northumberland have said.

They say council bosses need to know the future of local enterprise partnerships, which direct funding – a large amount of which is from the EU – to projects intended to grow the economy.

In a motion that will go before Northumberland County Council’s cabinet on March 21, the Labour group demanded that “a halt is put on change” until the outcome of the vote, on June 23, is known.

It also called for further assurances from the Government on the allocation of the local growth fund, money for rural areas and the funding of a new railway.

The Labour group added it would be “minded to go ahead” with the deal if the conditions were met.

Grant Davey, Northumberland county council and Labour group leader, said: “We’d like to see a halt put on change until after the EU referendum and the publication of the secondary legislation regarding regional mayors, as the outcome of the referendum may severely affect the status of and need for local enterprise partnerships.”

The intervention follows public criticism of the devolution deal from MPs, trade unionists and the deputy leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon.

Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, has also raised public doubts about the devolution deal on the issue of rural funding.

He will express concern that rural areas receive less money than urban ones under the local Government funding settlement and local growth fund.

Coun Davey said: “We are clear that if Lord O’Neil and his team of civil servants deliver on the original offer on devolution, we’d be minded to go ahead.

“There are doubts in some local authorities, especially those with rural populations and attendant issues, and that’s why I am writing to Lord O’Neil seeking assurances on key questions.

“We would also like a guarantee that the Ashington-Blyth Tyne Line will be funded by national Government provided an analysis shows the scheme is technically feasible.”

He added: “The Government must address the funding issues associated with sparsity within the local Government funding model so Northumberland is not disadvantaged.

“Also, the allocation of the local growth fund needs to recognise that rural developments cannot achieve the same economic impact as those in cities but they must receive an equitable share of funding.

“We think these are reasonable questions that require responses and that the Government has to recognise that the devolution deal is not happening in isolation.” …

http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/devolution-deal-should-halted-until-11005130

“Tory MPs talk for so long they derail law to stop creeping privatisation of the NHS”

“MPs voiced their fury today as just four backbenchers spoke for three and a half hours ahead of the NHS Bill by Caroline Lucas.

Their mammoth speeches meant the ex-Green Party leader had a meagre 17 minutes to put her case in the Commons – which meant her law was shelved without a vote.

The furious MP said “Tory games” had made a “mockery” of Parliament and told MPs their behaviour “risks bringing this house into disrepute”.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tory-mps-talk-long-derail-7539627

East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council and Teignbridge recognised as developers’ friend

The three councils make up the “Greater Exeter” consortium and, along with other chosen council Mid-Devon, ensures a speeded-up planning process in a continuous ring centred on Exeter.

Half a dozen councils across Devon and Cornwall have been chosen to pilot a new Government scheme designed to speed up the creation of new homes.

Housing ministers have selected the six local authorities to take part in the trial launch of their brownfield register initiative.

Under the policy, councils will draw up lists of derelict land and other underused sites which could be used for new developments.

Records will then be available to investors and construction companies to highlight prime redevelopment opportunities. …

… Cornwall, East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon, Torbay and Teignbridge council have all had their bids to pilot the scheme accepted. They will join 70 other local planning authorities in trialing the scheme, and helping to shape the future implementation of the policy.

Registers will eventually become mandatory for all councils under proposals going through Parliament in the Housing and Planning Bill. Other measures in the Bill will enable “permission in principle” to be granted for registered sites, giving developers “a greater degree of certainty” and ultimately speeding up the planning process. …”

http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/Devon-Cornwall-councils-chosen-pilot-new-housing/story-28901908-detail/story.html

The keywords are “under-used” and “prime redevelopment opportunities”- who decides? EDDC, helped by developers, of course!

“Help to buy is riddled with loopholes that the privileged can easily exploit”

” … a loophole in the details of the government’s flagship starter homes scheme could be exploited by prospective buy-to-let landlords – there is currently no stipulation that the buyer must live in the property. So potentially, wealthy parents could hand a child a lump sum to purchase a starter home with a 20% discount, then let the property out.

Rather than a sustainable and measured solution to the housing crisis, the government has built a house of cards: a few haphazard measures designed to temporarily boost the number of first-time buyers, without examining the foundations of the problem, but also leaving each scheme open to exploitation. In London, the capital’s specialised help-to-buy scheme doesn’t even require applicants to be first-time buyers to be eligible – they just have to be moving house.

A better solution would be one that tackled booming house prices and low building rates instead of throwing state cash at the problem and hoping it solves it, rather than simply gilding the pockets of the private sector.”

http://gu.com/p/4hejm