Tim Jones, chair of the South West Business Council, said: “There are no nuggets in this for the South West. It’s disappointing. They are taking a very complacent view of the South West being safe in Government circles.” (Today’s Western Morning News)
Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com
Council leaders say they don’t want Devon to have a new elected mayor as the government unveiled its ‘levelling up’ plans for the UK.
The idea has come up under plans for a new combined authority for the county to take over government powers.
The new body could control cross-council issues like training, housing, transport and business support.
But Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors all say they don’t want to see a new mayor in charge.
The government announced that under its levelling up plans, Devon, Torbay and Plymouth are on a list of nine areas where devolved powers will be handed over to a mayoral combined authority.
The government says it wants to create more of the strong local leadership shown by regional mayors like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
Council leaders in Devon say they are waiting for more details and support greater partnership working.
But they stress they don’t want to see the current system scrapped, and don’t want a new elected mayor.
Labour described the scheme as a “stunt” and said the money would not make up for the millions cut from local government by the Conservatives over 12 years of austerity.
Local government in Torbay and Plymouth is currently delivered by top-tier unitary authorities, in charge of all council services from licensing to waste collection.
In the rest of Devon there is a three-level system of parish and town councils for local issues like grass-cutting, district councils for services like planning and recycling, and Devon County Council for the rest including social services and highways.
A joint bid for a combined authority was submitted to government by all the Devon councils, but in talks with government they ruled out the need for an elected mayor.
John Hart, Conservative leader of Devon County Council, said: “What we have here is Devon having an opportunity to be in the forefront of what changes the government is going to make.”
He added: “It is about building on the strengths of the relationships we have.
“It is also having the government give us the powers to get on with some things, hopefully with a bit of money to give us the powers, to get us to be able to make decisions more locally than nationally.”
He said the new authority could focus on supporting the economy with skills and training, in partnerships with further education colleges like in Exeter, for example in the aviation and pharmaceutical industries, and in the care sector.
Cllr Hart said there were also huge opportunities in renewable energy and marine industries, such as building off-shore wind power generation, and developing the plans for a freeport at Plymouth and the surrounding area.
The Conservative leader said the councils in Devon had worked closely together during the pandemic and shown how support could be delivered effectively to local communities.
Plymouth City Council Labour group leader Tudor Evans, leader of the opposition on the Conservative-controlled authority, described levelling up as a “slogan” and the announcement as a “stunt”.
He said funding cuts over 12 years had seen the government grant to Plymouth drop from £106million 12 years ago to £10million now.
He said in real terms, without a cut, the grant should be £145million, and nationally local government funding had been cut by more than half, leading to the closure of hundreds of libraries, children’s centre, and police stations.
Cllr Evans, who used to be the city council’s leader, said: “The money that is on the table is dwarfed by the amount of money that has been taken from local government.
“The point is that this announcement is giving us a dance for a tiny bit of the money to be put back, forgetting the money that they have cancelled from local government over the last 12 years.
“Nobody must be under the illusion that this intervention will in any way make up for that, but more worrying than that, it won’t make up for the decades of underfunding in the South West.”
In Torbay, which is the most deprived area of the South West, the government has already allocated £22million of regeneration funding in Torquay and £13million in Paignton.
Liberal Democrat leader Steve Darling said all political parties in Devon were not interested in having an elected mayor.
The role was scrapped in Torbay in 2019 after a referendum in 2016 about whether to continue the system.
Cllr Darling said: “It should be about devolving powers to people, and then choosing the structures that work for them, rather than central government imposing what they think they should be.”
A mayoral combined authority is a legal body that allows councils to work together to make collective decisions across council boundaries, taking advantage of powers devolved to them by central government.
Nine mayoral combined authorities have been set up so far in England, with one covering the West of England, and there is one in the North East without a mayor.
The next nine areas to start talks over setting up the system are Cornwall, Derbyshire and Derby, Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, Durham, Hull and East Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire and Nottingham, and Suffolk.
There had been speculation that Devon would be next for a shake-up of local government after the two-tier council system was replaced by all-powerful unitary authorities in Dorset and Somerset.
But it appears any change to the current set-up of county and districts in Devon would now be resisted during talks about setting up a new combined authority.