Devolution and LEPs – more worrying insights

” … So what is wrong with it?

That question takes us to the first problem that we would want to talk about. Who decides what will happen? Well everything is decided at central government level. In particular, and I just mentioned George Osbourne, it’s quite odd that the whole thing is being driven by the Treasury rather than the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). So it’s Osbourne’s particular baby.

The way it works is that officials from the Treasury, certainly with people from DCLG too, enter into secret bespoke discussions with whoever approaches them and say “please may I have a slice of your devolution pizza?” They say “well, OK, we’ll come and talk to you.”

These discussions have all been held behind closed doors so at best it’s a discussion between the Treasury, the Department of Communities and Local Government, the leaders of the local councils who will probably be statutorily constituted as a combined authority and the Local Enterprise Partnerships, the LEPs.

The first problem with that is where does it leave the citizens? The citizen has no say, has no seat round the table and is not party to any of these discussions, which is an odd thing because you might think in principle devolution is at least in good part about devolving power to the local citizenry. Yet here are deals being hatched that exclude the citizen’s voice. I think that’s our first problem, discussions taken in private.

So, what are Local Enterprise Partnerships and how have they become so powerful in such a short time?

LEPs were the substitutes for the Regional Development Agencies or RDAs. RDAs were abolished once the coalition took off in 2010, they were abolished over a timespan of a year or two. So LEPs are the replacement.

LEPs are not statutory bodies, so in that sense there’s no clear channels of public accountability. They are basically a group of self-selecting business people who come together on a local basis and have the power to bid to Regional Growth Funds to get money for local enterprise development. They do have governing bodies and essentially the government’s arrangement is a mix of local business people again, as I said, pretty much self-selected because it’s done on a voluntary basis and members of the combined authority. So it’s a mix of politicians and local business people who sit on the LEP governing body.

It’s not a mix that always works well. LEPs have crept into a powerful position and sometimes central government will say certain things may be permissible at local level, for example increasing the business rate by 2%, but only if the LEP agrees. So LEPs are accreting little bits of power here and there even though they have no statutory basis for exercising their powers.

I guess most people will not have heard of LEPs. They are fairly shadowy and it would be fair to argue that if they’re going to exercise an increasing range of powers, they should be put on a statutory basis and there should be proper accountability to local people.

I thought it was fascinating in your article when you mentioned that Local Enterprise Partnerships resisted any examination of what they were doing on the grounds that it might “scare business”. That’s just extraordinary.

I would guess any self-respecting LEP is feeling a little bit awkward itself about all of this. LEPs are not statutory. They’re not accountable in any way to people living in a local area. They’re run on a shoestring, yet here they are having quite a significant voice round the table. That will be one of their concerns, that we need to talk about these things privately. This is part of what I’ve been calling the ‘democratic deficit’.

The second thing that perturbs me a lot about this is that as well as having private discussions that exclude the people, the government then goes on to require a form of governance that they prefer and which people have no choice over. I’m referring here to the requirement in the Act of Parliament now, that in order to get a deal, most places (the South West might be an exception because of its geography) must have a directly elected Mayor.

Take where I live: I’m up here in the North East. We will have one person whose remit will run from the Scottish Borders right down to the Tees Valley. It’s a vast area. One person running a swathe of important public affairs, and no-one’s been asked if they would like that model. It’s completely unclear where it leaves thousands and thousands of local councillors whose services will probably no longer be required.

What does this tell us about localism and the Big Society and all of that stuff that was very much heralded at the beginning of this government?

It was going to give all this power back to local people and so on and so on. Now that we’re a few years into it and we’re starting to be able to see what it actually looks like, what do you think it tells us about the motivation behind it? Who are they doing it for?

My view of the Big Society is that it was simply an attempt to cut costs and transfer services out to the third sector but without the necessary funding to accompany that transfer. You don’t hear a lot of talk these days about the Big Society, do you? So where are we left with this?

We’re left with councils cut to the bone and the suspicion through the whole devolution policy that what the government wants to do is transfer responsibility for funding and public spending cuts to a more local level. Regional, sub-regional, currently it’s with the local councils. That’s probably best not described as devolution. It’s best described as delegation of responsibility for funding. It can even apply to the NHS, in particular in Greater Manchester, which so far is the only devolution deal which has involved fairly clear agreement to take on responsibility for NHS services.

There are some very important and worrying questions being raised by all of this. What we’re slowly doing is taking the national out of a lot of services that have been national and making them local. In principle it has some attractions but in the current economic and political climate, I’d be very worried about taking responsibilities on when the funding was disappearing.

A lot of this stuff is being justified on the grounds of economic growth. What do you think we run the risk of sacrificing in our desperate attempt to achieve economic growth?

If there’s one implicit objective of the devolution deal, it’s the idea that it will spur economic growth. This is George Osborne’s real focus. You devolve to core cities and through devolving some powers over transport and regeneration you get the benefit of agglomeration. That may well work in certain geographies but even if you did get more growth – I think it’s a bit unclear exactly why you would – but even if you did, more regional growth is one thing. How you use the proceeds of that is another.

If you take the Northern Powerhouse as the most frequently cited example, it may well be good for Manchester, maybe even for Leeds, but once you get out into the rural areas and the older industrial areas, it’s not easy to see how this will be of benefit in these wider geographies. It’s a question about the type of growth and the proceeds of growth as well as whether you get the growth at all.

If people read your article and feel like something very valuable, something very precious is either slipping through their fingers or being wrenched from their grasp depending on which way they look at it, what can they do about it?

That’s a good question, isn’t it? We’re looking at a whole range of different ‘devo deals’. What the Chancellor did late last year was to invite local areas, regions and sub regions to put in a bid for a deal, and they were given seven weeks to do it. Seven weeks. Thirty eight such bids were received. Most of them were not considered strong enough to take forward, so we only have about half a dozen that are currently going forward.

I guess you could stop these deals in their tracks if one or more local councils who were in the combined authority said “we don’t think this is a good deal, sorry, we’re pulling out. We just don’t want to go ahead with it.” You would then suffer a loss of course, because you would be seen as a poor team player. There are more powers coming along, even if these are delegated powers, and there’s a bit of money at stake. Always follow the money! Council spending is being crucified.

But as part of the devo deals, the Treasury comes along and says “if you sign a deal on our terms, we will give you x amount of money.” My own area, the North East is pretty typical. The deal up here with the North East Combined Authority is £30 million per year for 30 years. Incidentally, I have never known a political pledge that was ever honoured over 30 years! But that’s the deal on offer.”

UK: the worst score for electoral integrity in Western Europe

The UK scores worst in electoral integrity in Western Europe. Here’s why:

The UK performs poorly when it comes to issues of electoral integrity, lagging behind European neighbours but does particularly poorly when compared with Scandinavia – which as is the case in many fields outperforms Britain.

Here, Pippa Norris looks at the reasons why, pointing to voter registration procedures, electoral laws, media coverage, constituency boundaries, and the counting and results process:

Issues of electoral malpractice have received growing attention in the UK. The House of Commons Library briefing on Electoral offences since 2010 gives details of the reports published by the Electoral Commission and the Associations of Chief Police Officers on cases of alleged malpractice.

Questions have arisen over insecure postal ballots, proxy voting, and fraudulent practices. The Electoral Commission issued warnings of potential ‘ethnic kinship’ voting in British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, a practice thought to make these areas particularly vulnerable to electoral fraud.

Sir Eric Pickles, the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, has reviewed electoral fraud to make recommendations on what could be done to tackle the problem.Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, has claimed that electoral fraud is a ‘growing phenomena’ in British elections.

Polling Day in the UK General Election

The UK General Election on May 7th 2015 certainly generated several media reports of alleged malpractices and shortfalls.

On polling day, technical glitches were reported in Hackney and Dorset following problems with the electoral roll and distribution of cards for the incorrect polling station, blamed by officials on information technology and printing errors.

Bournemouth council apologized after 100 people were unable to cast their vote in the local elections because an administrative blunder had led to the wrong ballot papers being issued. Earlier 250,000 ballot papers went missing after a printer’s van was stolen in Eastbourne and Hastings.

The Electoral Commission investigated complaints that some overseas voters had not received their voting packs in time. The Guardian reported that Metropolitan police received 18 allegations of electoral fraud in the run up to polling day.

In Tower Hamlets, the High Court suspended the Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, after he was found guilty of falsifying postal votes and putting undue pressure on voters at polling stations during the 2014 local and European elections.
In Darlington, the BBC reported that the UKIP candidate’s name was missing on ballot papers.

Finally, the Telegraph reported that the Scottish Tory party leader tweeted claims of voter intimidation in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, with the allegations investigated by local police.

None of these were major issues, compared with problems common in many other countries, but they may still have undermined public confidence in the electoral process. When asked beforehand in the British Election Study, the majority of citizens expected that the election would be conducted fairly, but almost one fifth (18%) thought that it would be unfairly conducted. …”

Meet our elusive MP Hugo Swire – Sidmouth, Friday 22 April 2016, 9.15 am

Coffee morning, Woodlands Hotel Sidmouth 9.15 am
Sidmouth Business Club – though flyer says all welcome and no need to book
£5 entry

No doubt LOTS of people have LOTS of questions – but are they willing to pay £5 for a coffee to ask them?

But you never know when he will be back …

Hinkley C: the damning views of its own French engineers

EDF dissenters urge Hinkley nuclear delay Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Senior engineers at French utility EDF have called for at least a two year delay at the controversial Hinkley Point nuclear project in the UK and recommended a redesign of the reactor technology.
An internal white paper written by dissenting EDF engineers, which has been seen by the Financial Times, argues that Hinkley Point is so complex and untested that the company should announce a later completion date than the target of 2025.

The paper, circulated among top executives, said that the “realistic service date was 2027” due to the size of the project, continuing design modifications to the European Pressurised Reactor system and the “very low” competency of French supplier Areva in making some of the large components.
The white paper also made the case for a “new EPR”, calling on the company to redesign the current reactor technology to make it smaller, cheaper to build and less complicated.

A timely start-up at Hinkley Point, which will provide 7 per cent of UK electricity, is critical because the government has set 2025 as the date by which the last of Britain’s coal-fired power stations is due to close.
EDF said in a statement last night that it would stick to the planned timetable. “The date for the first operation of Hinkley Point C has not changed. It will be in 2025,” it said.

But experts say any slippage in that timetable was likely to mean having to pay companies to keep older plants running or even build more short-term, highly polluting diesel power.

EDF has been beset by internal tensions over Hinkley Point, with chief financial officer Thomas Piquemal resigning this month over concerns that the project could threaten the company’s future.

Critics have raised concerns over the £18bn cost, given EDF’s stretched balance sheet. Two other projects in France and Finland using the same EPR technology are both severely delayed and billions over budget.

The unsigned white paper was written after Mr Piquemal’s resignation by a group of senior engineers and other dissidents, according to people with knowledge of the document. The company plans to make the final investment decision on the project at a board meeting on May 11.

Doubts grow over hitting the zero-carbon target

According to existing plans, 2025 is to be a pivotal moment in the history of British energy. The problem is that while the closure of coal power plants is accelerating, the prospect of Hinkley Point opening by 2025 appears to be receding.

In the paper, the EDF engineers called for a joint “Franco-British project” to commission four to six “optimised EPRs” by the end of the decade that could be operational between 2028 and 2031.

One person with knowledge of the company likened the current EPR to the Concorde supersonic airliner, a technical marvel but a commercial failure. The new EPR would be “more like an Airbus”, the comparatively simple but successful passenger aircraft.

The paper also addresses wider fears that the Hinkley project will in any case not be completed by 2025 and might suffer years of construction delays.
One person on the EDF board who had read the white paper said: “Few believe that we can build this [Hinkley Point] by 2025 any more.”

Another person close to the group said that 2025 was set to remain the official target, but the final decision could incorporate a margin for error because even with a two-year delay the project would still be profitable.
Three people close to the company said that CGN, EDF’s Chinese partner for Hinkley, also feared possible delays, attempting to insert a clause so it would take on a lower financial risk if there were a large problem.
Nuclear options

Engineers believe 4-6 smaller, simpler power plants could become operational as early as 2028, only a year later than the backstop date for Hinkley. UK ministers should consider this option.

In the case of a £5bn cost overrun, despite EDF having a 66.5 per cent stake in the project, EDF would be liable for 80 per cent of the additional costs, according to a document sent by the EDF finance department to the board’s audit committee in January.

That figure could be subject to change as the final investment decision has not been made. EDF declined to comment on the number.

The Hinkley project is still likely to go ahead as planned. Three out of the four EDF unions with board seats are against the project in its current form, as well as at least one independent board member.

But the majority of the 18-strong board is likely to vote in favour of the deal in May, according to people close to the group. The company is 85 per cent state owned, and the government wants the project to go ahead.

“Police and Crime Panels must be better equipped to hold PCCs to account: MPs”

Police and Crime Panels must be better equipped to hold Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCS) to account, MPs have said.

In a report the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) noted that the panels were the only mechanism for accountability of PCCs outside of elections every four years. The MPs said the panels and PCCs should meet a minimum of once every two months.

The report, Police and Crime Commissioners: here to stay, also said that – in order to improve transparency and accountability – there should be a a central register of PCCs’ interests and a centrally maintained list of PCC office costs.

The MPs added that:

Those Commissioners who will be elected in May must prioritise consolidating the work of their predecessors before considering further expansions of their role and powers.

It was “deeply concerning” that there had been so few applicants for recent Chief Constable vacancies. Many of these roles had been awarded to the incumbent Deputy Chief Constables, who often shared a close relationship with the relevant Police and Crime Commissioner.

PCCs should consolidate their profile in the communities they represent. Turnout at the next elections would be one measure of success in engagement.
Any expansion of the PCC role needed to be incremental and carefully judged. “The additional responsibilities for PCCs detailed in the Policing and Crime Bill in relation to fire and rescue, and in police complaints provide sufficient additional challenges for now, and PCCs should concentrate on the issues raised in this report, wider public engagement and their core role before broader expansion of their role is considered.”

Progress on the new Police Funding Formula must be brought forward, “as damaging delays are making it impossible for PCCs to fulfil their role of setting Force budgets. PCCs hands are tied by the stalled review which must be restarted urgently, with the establishment of the independent panel HASC called for in its December report.”

Keith Vaz MP, chair of the committee, said: “PCCs are here to stay. A series of measures would consolidate their role and effectiveness in local communities. This must begin with a central register of PCCs interests and a centrally maintained list of PCC office costs, so they can be better scrutinised by their electorate.

“We did not anticipate that the creation of PCCs would have such a dramatic effect on the appointment of Chief Constables. The pool of talent in policing is in danger of drying up, with so few applications for the most senior jobs in policing. PCCs must ensure applicants for Chief Constable roles have served at least two years in another Police Force at a senior rank, and not allow close working relationships with their Deputy Chief Constables to deter external applicants.”

Vaz added that newly elected office holders in May should not be burdened with too many additional responsibilities. “They are already due to be given more powers for Fire and Rescue Services and Police Complaints, and an even broader remit on top of this may prove overwhelming and these proposals should be paused.”