If devolution is the answer – what was the question?

Devolution doesn’t always mean taking back control

Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, successive UK governments have fiddled around with ways of devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall. The most radical has been Scottish devolution, which continues to evolve. The least coherent has been the patchwork of schemes developed across England, ranging from a well-thought out arrangement for London, with a directly elected mayor and assembly, to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along “devolution deals” for the rest.

The coalition government of 2010-15 abolished – wisely – the regional governance bureaucracies. The first big replacement idea was Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), intended as “business-led” mechanisms for spending public money. The areas covered by LEPs were in some cases obvious, based for example on established city regions or former metropolitan counties. In others the rationale was less clear, perhaps nowhere more so than the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP, covering a massive area from Plymouth to the south of Bristol [1]. It’s tempting to think that after Cornwall decided to go their own way and Bristol wasn’t having any truck with its Somerset neighbours, that HotSW was the “bit left over”.

The performance of these fundamentally secretive and undemocratic bodies is not the focus of this post [2]. They are relevant because the LEP areas have in some cases – including HotSW – formed the basis of the subsequent devolution proposals in England.

The government has been inviting groups of local authorities to submit proposals for devolving decision-making in certain functions, particularly infrastructure and economic development, but not limited to these.

The rationale behind this approach is that increasing productivity, a key goal of government policy, is best achieved by local targeting of support measures through local authorities and business interests working together.

The government has made it clear that access to some central funding is dependent on devolution deals being agreed. Invariably, local authorities across the area commit to setting up a “combined authority” to take the decisions. Unlike London, this would not be directly elected but would be made up of the leaders of the constituent councils plus non-elected representatives of the NHS and the LEP. Initially, agreement to having a directly-elected mayor was a condition of a devolution deal but the government now seems to be less rigid on this.

One of the problems with this approach is that it was designed for large urban areas. Greater Manchester, for example, has operated as a partnership of councils across a coherent area since the 1960s when Passenger Transport Authorities were set up. Manchester is the trail-blazer in the current devolution game, and it clearly works for them.

What is less clear is that the combined authority structure will work well in those areas of England that aren’t part of a conurbation. A pretentious-sounding body called The Independent Commission on Economic Growth and the Future of Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England produced a report last year arguing for devolution deals for the rest of England [3].

It does make the useful point that LEP areas do not in most cases coincide with functional economic areas (a conclusion which should be enough to discredit the whole idea of LEPs), but is otherwise a typical product of this debate in that it focusses on structures and “partnerships” from which communities are largely excluded.

The councils within the HotSW area have submitted a devolution bid to the government [4]. The bid identifies 6 challenges for the area (low productivity growth, limited labour market, patchy performance in innovation and enterprise, an ageing population, health and care integration, infrastructure and connectivity) and 6 “Golden Opportunities” for improving growth and productivity (marine, nuclear, aerospace and advanced engineering, data analytics, rural productivity, health and care). The bid has a wholly economic focus: other than in references to care, the word “social” does not appear in the document, and there is no acknowledgement of the impacts of the plans on the natural environment.

If the bid succeeds – and at least some of the councils are treating the whole exercise with a degree of caution – decision-making on the plans and services covered by the bid will be sucked upwards from the councils and the people they represent. How the combined authority will balance the interests of, say, Plymouth with those of people in the Mendips will be discussed in officer-led groups behind closed doors – because that is the only way “partnership” working can be made to operate in practice. The need to prepare for joint meetings gives authority officers huge influence over agendas and decisions because of the need to coordinate positions and identify common solutions in advance of meetings.

The combined authority itself will be made up of leaders of the constituent councils and others. It will not be directly elected. Trying to influence its decisions will be next to impossible for individuals and community groups. The bid’s economic focus ignores environmental and community questions completely, so being able to provide a counter-balance is hugely important. As it is, the bid’s environmental credentials are defined by the partnership’s LEP-led role as a cheerleader for the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Other devolution bids across England generate similar challenges. At a time when disillusion with our politics is at an all-time high, it is puzzling – to put it mildly – that decision-making is to move even further away from the people most affected


[1] The map of LEP areas at http://www.lepnetwork.net/the-network-of-leps/ shows just how large the area is.

[2] An excellent House of Commons briefing note (July 2016) provides a concise guide to LEPs including reviews of their performance – see http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05651.pdf

[3] See http://www.local.gov.uk/non-met-commission

[4] The bid document is at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/files/2016/01/Heart-of-the-South-West-Devolution-Prospectus.pdf


Police and Crime Commissioner’s ” cunning plan” falls apart

Our Police and Crime Commissioner was gushingly keen on using social media to report crimes:

Now we hear that up to 50 police officers and PCSOs have been removed from front-line duties in Devon and Cornwall to deal with a backlog of such calls.


And who will call out this amazingly daft idea?

No-one. The Chief Constable says:

“”In response to the 101 delays, the force moved around 50 people including officers, PCSOs and other staff to assist the contact centre. “The significant majority of these were on restricted duties therefore were unable to undertake front line duties or their usual job role. “The team have been recording crime information, to release our call handlers to answer 101 and 999 calls.

“This is a short term position and we expect all the staff to be returned to their original roles by Christmas.”

Why is it short-term if people continue to report crimes this way? Or are they going to recruit 50 more civilians? If so, why were they not recruited earlier?

Will the Police Panel investigate? No, it is overwhelmingly Tory and needs to keep the lid on these things.

Hernandez is already banned from making political comments – will she be banned from making comments about this – her “cunning plan” when she sought election?

“Plans for ‘flood risk’ symbols on homes prove controversial”

Not a chance of this being taken up either by estate agents or developers in rainy, hilly, run-off, river crossed East Devon!

“The insurance industry has published three “flood risk” symbols it would like estate agents in England and Wales to put on their property particulars.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) is proposing traffic light symbols in red, amber and green, to warn buyers about the flood dangers.

But estate agents say such symbols would stop buyers even looking at a property, so would block sales.

Around one in six properties would be labelled as either amber or red.

The ABI says the symbols would prompt buyers to investigate flood risks properly.

It claims that at the moment, house-hunters are more likely to ask about parking provision than flooding.

Last December, as many as 16,000 homes in the north of England succumbed to flood waters, as a result of Storm Desmond and Storm Eva.


Three flood symbolsImage copyrightABIt

James Dalton, director of general insurance at the ABI, said: “As the floods of last winter reminded us, being flooded is horribly traumatic and can leave people out of their home or business for months.

“Anyone whose property is at flood risk needs to be aware of that, so they can take steps to protect themselves.”
However, estate agents say they are unlikely to take up the idea.

They point out that, under the Consumer Protection Regulations, they are already obliged to tell buyers of any material concerns about a property, including the risk of flooding.

But having such prominent warning symbols would put most buyers off, they say.

“If you see a red, you wouldn’t bother to look at it. You’d say, I’m not going to visit,” said Mark Hayward, the managing director of the National Association of Estate Agents.

See the Environment Agency flood maps for England and Wales
“It would be a pointless and fruitless exercise,” said property expert Henry Pryor.

“You would make a huge proportion of homes unsalable and unmortgageable.”

He said having just three symbols would also be an oversimplification of many different degrees of flood risk.
The ABI said that if estate agents did not take up the idea voluntarily, it might consider asking for legislation to make it compulsory.

The government appeared to offer qualified support for the idea of the flood risk symbols.

“It’s important people understand flood risk, so they can make informed decisions about where they live,” said a spokesperson from the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

“We’re making more data and technology available than ever before through the Environment Agency’s free Flood Warnings Service and our advanced flood mapping and forecasting.”


NHS set for “perpetual winter of Narnia”

That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

Noam Chomsky,

“The NHS is missing so many of its key performance targets that it has entered “the perpetual winter of Narnia”, a medical leader has said, after figures revealed the highest ever number of patients on waiting lists.

Claire Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, criticised the NHS’s failure to give patients planned care in hospital within the required 18 weeks, such as surgery for cataract removals, hernia repairs and hip and knee replacements.

The number of people in England who are awaiting such treatments has climbed to almost 3.9 million.

Demand for NHS care is dangerously high, says thinktank
Hospitals are meant to treat 92% of patients on the “referral-to-treatment” (RTT) waiting list within 18 weeks, according to guarantees in the NHS constitution. However, they did so in just 91.3% of cases in July, NHS-wide performance data released on Thursday shows. It was the service’s worst RTT performance in more than five years.

Hospitals met the 92% target in nine categories of RTT patients, including those requiring treatment for eye problems (92.7%), cardiac care (92.7%) and gynaecological problems (92.3%). However, it missed the target in 10 other categories. It treated barely four of of five (81.7%) of all those awaiting neurosurgery within 18 weeks, 86.9% of those needing plastic surgery and 88.9% of trauma and orthopaedic patients.

“It feels as if the NHS has stepped through the wardrobe and into the perpetual winter of Narnia,” Marx said. “We cannot forget that behind these statistics are potentially very ill and anxious patients who are being made to wait far too long for treatment. This is the true impact of the serious financial pressure we’ve seen the NHS come under in recent months.”

The NHS also missed targets covering A&E, ambulance response times, diagnostic tests, two forms of cancer treatment and rapid first treatment for those experiencing psychosis for the first time.

Dr Mark Holland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “This data reflects a system which is close to breaking down.”

Bed blocking has reached record levels. In July a total of 184,188 bed days were lost to delayed discharges – when patients are fit to leave but social care support is not in place – up sharply from 147,376 in the same month last year, and the highest number since records began in August 2010.

At midnight on the last Thursday in July, 6,364 patients who were fit to leave were still in their beds, up from the previous record of 6,105 patients the month before.

“For every 100 people who come to A&E, around 30 are admitted and, of these, 20 come under acute medicine. That number is increasing and our front-of-house workforce is depleted,” Holland said.

However, performance is most significantly hampered due to our inability to discharge people at the backdoor of our hospitals. Failure to get people home is, in my view, a national emergency.”

Medical leaders want ministers to urgently pledge more money for the NHS to tackle its growing problems.

Marx said: “The forthcoming autumn statement offers an opportunity for the government to provide more money for the NHS and social care, and to agree to a cross-party commission to review how we can make the NHS sustainable for the long term. Without a serious look at what the NHS needs in funding, we will remain in a state of constant winter.”

NHS England said that despite missing so many targets, its performance was still very good by international standards.

“As the NHS responds to ever increasing care needs, hospitals are continuing to look after more than nine out of 10 A&E patients within four hours, and more than nine in 10 patients are waiting less than 18 weeks for their routine operations,” said Matthew Swindells, its national director of operations and information.

“While this is probably the best performance of any western nation, these figures underline the pressures facing the NHS, and the obvious risks to patient care posed by weeks of further drawn-out industrial action.”


The Friday Smile: The “Dunning Kruger” effect

Just remember, Owl will moderate comments!

This is the psychological concept known as the “Dunning-Kruger” effect — put very simply, when stupid people don’t know that they are stupid — in action.

Writing at Pacific Standard, psychologist David Dunning explains it as:

[I]n many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack.

To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent.

Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Source: salon.com from Pacific Standard (author, David Dunning)

British public will pay decommissioning costs of Hinkley C

There will be some VERY happy nuclear-vested LEP members who will surely be hoping to cash in there when the time comes and their grandchildren are running their companies!

The French and Chinese companies that are to build the £18bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power station will have to pay up to £7.2bn to dismantle and clean it up. [but read further – the cost is built in to the price we will pay them for electricity generated].

Documents published yesterday reveal for the first time how much the developers, EDF and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), will have to pay to decommission the plant, beginning in 2083.

The new reactors in Somerset will be unique in British nuclear history, as they are the first for which the operator will have to pay to make good the site afterwards.

“Waste transfer contracts signed today mean that, for the first time in the UK, the full costs of decommissioning and waste management associated with the new power station are set aside during generation and are included in the price of the electricity,” EDF said in a statement.

Decommissioning costs ate up around half the budget for the now-disbanded department of energy and climate change, after the liabilities for cleaning up old nuclear plants were effectively nationalised in 2004 and 2005 when two companies faced financial problems.

The Hinkley Point C decommissioning costs are estimated at £5.9bn to £7.2bn, with the dismantling of the plant expected to begin in 2083. The government, EDF and CGN anticipate the winding up of the new reactors will continue well into the 22nd century. The plant is expected to be fully decommissioned “from 2138” when the final spent fuel is disposed of.

Experts said the cost estimate was likely to be on the low side. “The reality in terms of decommissioning is that it always costs more than people say,” said Dr Paul Dorfman, of the Energy Institute at University College London.

He claimed that the precedent of the government taking ownership of the liabilities of British Nuclear Fuels Limited and British Energy more than a decade ago showed that the government would be forced to shoulder the costs if Hinkley’s developers had a shortfall.

The body charged with dismantling 17 of Britain’s old nuclear power plants puts the cost of cleanup at £117bn over 100 years in its latest annual report, more than twice the cost estimated a decade ago. A large proportion of the cost is due to the complexity of Sellafield.

The business department also admitted that large scale solar power and onshore windfarms could produce electricity for less than the price agreed for Hinkley, as the National Audit Office said in the summer.

But officials suggested there would be additional costs to the renewable alternatives. “There would be significant upgrades to the grid required (such as connection and planning costs) as well as increased costs to keep the system in balance,” said the ‘Value for money assessment’.

Greenpeace UK executive director, John Sauven, said: “We now have it straight from the horse’s mouth. Increasingly cheaper renewable energy sources do indeed offer better value for money to British bill-payers than Hinkley.

“The government tries to obfuscate the advantages of solar and wind by throwing in extra costs for grid upgrades and balancing the energy system. But there’s no evidence anywhere in the documents to back up their assumptions.”


Swire: is the Maldives more important to him than the loss of NHS beds in East Devon?

On 22 September 2016, Hugo Swire issued a bland statement about planned hospital bed closures in East Devon, broadly supportive of the plan as long as Sidmouth hospital’s beds were amongst those to be retained:


On the same day, he tweeted that he had met with Devon Doctors and “agreed with them that some local politicians had mislead the local community and should apologise”.

(To date, Swire has not named those local politicians, nor has he elaborated on what they should apologise about).
Yesterday, he tweeted:

Just finished 2 hour meeting at County Hall with @NEWDevonCCG and Success Regime on hospital beds consultation.“.

He does not mention whether this was (yet another) private briefing for him and Conservative politicians or whether it included others not of that persuasion.

Since then he has Tweeted on the cessation of the “Right to Buy” scheme and “Daesh on the back foot”.

He has not added any clarification of his meeting about the NHS in Devon.

In the last week, all his (written) questions (4) in Parliament have been about the Maldives:


Swire’s new job just got harder

One of Hugo Swire’s new jobs in Parliament is to assist with arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Looks like he might have backed a bit of a loser. Imagine if Minister’s salaries had been cut by 20% when we had austerity measures!

Saudi Arabia announced several fiscal consolidation measures on Tuesday in an effort to help reduce the kingdom’s record budget deficit as it contends with lower-for-longer oil prices and costly regional conflicts.

Chief among them, according to Bloomberg:

Ministers’ salaries will be shaved down by 20%.

Salaries of the members of the Shura Council, which advises the monarchy, will be cut by 15%.

And bonus payments will be canceled for state employees.

Notably, Saudi stocks fell the most in the world for two days in a row after the announcement, tumbling by nearly 6%.The Tadawul All Share (TASI) is down by 3.4% at 5,534.43 as of 11:44 a.m. ET.

“It’s one more economic measure to balance spending. Of course people don’t like it, but it’s a sign of the times,” Saudi analyst and editor of Al Arab News Jamal Khashoggi told Reuters after the kingdom’s announcement.

“Probably the teachers and many others will be affected by it. It shows why it’s important for the private sector and Saudi GDP to diversify.”

Source: Business Insider

PM must publish secret papers about refusing Brexit vote in Parliament

“The government has been forced by a senior judge to reveal secret legal arguments for refusing to let parliament decide when and how the UK should withdraw from the European Union.

In a preliminary victory for those challenging Theresa May’s power to trigger Brexit, a high court judge, Mr Justice Cranston, has swept aside restrictions on publishing official documents before the hearing on 13 October.

In the released documents, lawyers for the government argue that it is “constitutionally impermissible” for parliament to be given the authority rather than the prime minister and dismiss any notion that the devolved nations – Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – will have any say in the process”.

They add: “The appropriate point at which the UK should begin the procedure required by article 50 [of the European Union treaty] to give effect to [notifying the UK’s exit] is a matter of high, if not the highest policy.

“It is a polycentric decision based upon a multitude of domestic and foreign policy and political concerns for which the expertise of ministers and their officials are particularly well-suited and the courts ill-suited.”

Responding to the release of the skeleton arguments, John Halford, a solicitor partner at Bindmans law firm which represents the People’s Challenge, a crowd-funded group, said: “The court’s order allows a floodlight to be shone on the government’s secret reasons for believing it alone can bring about Brexit without any meaningful parliamentary scrutiny.

“Those who were unsettled by the government’s insistence on its defence being kept secret will now be surprised by the contents, including submissions that Brexit has nothing constitutionally to do with the Scottish and Northern Ireland devolved governments, that parliament ‘clearly understood’ it was surrendering any role it might have in Brexit by passing the EU Referendum Act, that it has no control over making and withdrawal from treaties and that individuals can have fundamental rights conferred by acts of parliament stripped away if and when the executive withdraws from the treaties on which they are based.

“These arguments will be tested in court next month, but now they can be debated by the public too.”


Yet here in East Devon we are not allowed to know anything about EDDC’s negotiations with PegasusLife. Strange that.