DCC opens up its Local Enterprise Partnership Scrutiny Commmittee to public scrutiny and participation

This positive change has long been requested by East Devon Alliance DCC Councillor Martin Shaw (Colyton and Seaton).

See minutes below for a full account of discussion at the meeting – about what is working well and (more importantly and interestingly) what is not:

https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=3572&x=1

“Senior role in East Devon’s ruling cabinet has been axed”

So, the “transformation” role in Ben Ingham’s TiggerTory cabinet has been abolished by said leader.

How convenient – no more pesky questions about the Leader’s pre-election promise to move from a Cabinet system to a committee system, more representative of the diverse groups that now exist.

Councillor Millar, understandably, believed “transformation” meant changes to the way officers AND councillors would work. Instead it seems Leader Ingham sees “transformation” as applying to more commercialisation of council services and more revenue-boosting asset-sweating or selling. In other words, a continuation of the previous Tory policies – local government as business rather than public service.

More BOGOF (buy one, get one free) than transformation!

“… No reason for the decision of the leader of the council to not replace the portfolio holder position is stated in the papers ahead of the meeting. …

Instead, the cabinet collectively will take on responsibility for delivery of the Council Plan and the associated strategies of Fit for Purpose, Careful Choices and Commercialisation of Services.

The report says that Cllr Jess Bailey, Corporate Services Portfolio holder, will take on responsibility for Digital by Design and Systems Thinking, while Cllr Geoff Pook, Asset Management Portfolio holder, will now be responsible for Commercialisation of Assets rather than Revenue Generation.

… Next Wednesday’s meeting will also see changes made to committee membership as a result of the political balance of the council changes following Cllr Millar’s resignation from the Independent Group.

The council now consists of 19 members in the Independent Group, 19 Conservatives, 11 from the East Devon Alliance, eight Liberal Democrats, two Green Party members, and one Independent, Cllr Millar.

Sitting as an Independent, he is entitled to two seats across all the committees, and the full council is recommended to approve a proposal that would see the ruling Independent Group lose a seat on both the Overview Committee and the Licensing and Enforcement Committee.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/senior-role-east-devons-ruling-3442021

Increased Parking Charges – Extraordinary Scrutiny Meeting Thursday, October 24, from 6pm, at Blackdown House

“Last month, East Devon District Council’s cabinet agreed to launch a consultation process on increasing the hourly tariff in nine car parks from £1 to £1.20.

If approved, the following car parks would be affected: Lace Walk (Honiton), West Street (Axminster), Orchard (Seaton), Central (Beer), Ham East, Ham West, Roxburgh and Mill Street (Sidmouth), Rolle Mews (Budleigh Salterton), London Inn, Imperial Road and Queen’s Drive (Exmouth).

The district council says the proposals would allow ‘more efficient management’ of the car parks and encourage motorists to use the less popular facilities.

The decision has been called into scrutiny by councillor Mike Howe.

Scrutiny has the right to request any decision made by the cabinet or a portfolio holder be discussed by them, with a view to make recommendations, prior it being implemented.

The scrutiny meeting will take place on Thursday, October 24, from 6pm, at Blackdown House, in Honiton.”

https://www.exmouthjournal.co.uk/news/extraordinary-scrutiny-meeting-called-to-discuss-parking-1-6323425

Tory donors can, and do, control Prime Ministers

“Two former Conservative prime ministers lobbied a Middle Eastern royal family to award a multi-billion dollar oil contract to a company headed by a major Tory donor, the Guardian has established.

In March 2017, while in Downing Street, Theresa May wrote to the Bahraini prime minister to support the oil firm Petrofac while it was bidding to win the contract from the Gulf state.

Two months earlier, and just six months after stepping down as prime minister, David Cameron promoted the company during a two-day visit to Bahrain where he met the state’s crown prince.

Cameron was flown back to Britain on a plane belonging to Ayman Asfari, Petrofac’s co-founder, chief executive and largest shareholder. Petrofac did not ultimately win the contract.

Asfari and his wife, Sawsan, have donated almost £800,000 to the Conservative party since 2009. The donations were made in a personal capacity.

Documents obtained by the Guardian raise questions about how governments should best manage the perceived potential conflicts of interest generated by donations from business figures to political parties.

The government said it was routine for ministers to support British businesses bidding for major foreign contracts. Petrofac said official support had been obtained through entirely proper channels.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has been investigating Petrofac over suspected bribery, corruption and money laundering for at least two years. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/15/revealed-cameron-and-may-lobbied-bahrain-royals-for-tory-donors-oil-firm?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Broadclyst Parish Council offices aren’t even in Broadclyst (and the rent is £16,000 a year)!

Broadclyst – where the council makes sure hedges don’t scratch your new car! Where bowls club members are heavily subsidised – and where the town council doesn’t even have an office – preferring to rent in Sowton for £16,000 a year!

AND where 4.5 employees share salary and pension costs of £204,000 – meaning if they were all paid the same they would be getting £45,000 plus per year. But they probably AREN’T being paid equally, which means someone – or a couple of someones – is probably being paid substantially more …

“Broadclyst Parish Council currently charges £244.51 for a band D property for its portion of the council tax, compared with the average in Devon of £42.20. …

Since the meeting [when new councillor Karl Straw tried to get the massive precept reduced] we’ve had this excellent cost cutting suggestion from a parishioner about re-locating the council office. The council pays £16,000 a year for office and car parking on the Sowton industrial estate, outside the parish, while the council owned village sports pavilion is a loss-making building, mainly used at weekends. The parishioner has suggested it would make sense to reduce costs and move the offices to the pavilion.

During the meeting one councillor said that we have to pay more because people with new cars would complain if they get scratched on uncut hedges. I don’t know what world they live in, but most ordinary hardworking people don’t have brand new cars, a lot of residents struggle even to have a car.”

Cllr Straw said that parishioners were also very concerned about the high cost of leasing a maintenance truck, at £4,500 a year, plus £3,000 for insurance and other costs.

Parish councillor Liz Straw, who joined the council in May and also voted to reduce the council tax added: “This council dramatically increased the tax now it’s time for a dramatic reduction and time to listen to local people’s concerns. We must behave responsibly and carefully with public money, other thriving Devon parishes charge a sensible council tax. We need to do the same.

“We can’t afford to subsidize the bowling club to the tune of £10,000 – it’s highly irresponsible, especially in a time of austerity. There have been a lot of complaints about the bowling club costs and I hope the club will take over most of the costs and not expect the public purse to fund their hobby.”

Councillors voted by six votes to two to reject the motion though, with the chairman not required to vote.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Massey, the chairman said that they welcomed the Straw’s motion looking to cut the cost and the council tax and that every line in the budget would be looked at, but cutting one third of the budget in one go was not something they felt they could support.

He said: “The council tax in Broadclyst is high, as it is in Cranbrook and Clyst Honiton, our neighbouring parishes. We do provide a lot of services and we have been asked by the community who don’t want to see things lost and we had a request to provide more services and so we have to set the council tax accordingly.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/bid-reduce-council-tax-parish-3427719

Local Enterprise Partnership “scrutiny” laid bare (and a chance to see for the scrutiny not working for yourself)

Comment as post:

“Heart of the South West (HotSW) Joint Scrutiny Committee

meets on

Thursday October 17
at County Hall 2.15 pm

(public may attend but not speak) to consider, amongst other things, a review of its own scrutiny performance and how it could be improved. This Joint Scrutiny Committee is the nearest thing we have to democratic oversight of our Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), HoTSW. Judge how good it is for yourselves. The Joint Committee comprises 17 councillors drawn from just nine of the 17 odd Devon and Somerset local and unitary authorities. Political proportionality only applies to the four nominees from each of the two County Councils.

https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/documents/g3572/Public%20reports%20pack%2017th-Oct-2019%2014.15%20Heart%20of%20the%20South%20West%20HotSW%20Local%20Enterprise%20Partnersh.pdf?T=10

FIRST A RECAP & SOME SCENE SETTING.

In 2010 the government started approving bids from self-selecting, business led, Local Enterprise Partnerships. LEPs were encouraged to make ambitious plans to run their local economies and bid for central government growth development funds, effectively kick starting English Devolution. HotSW is the selected LEP covering Devon and Somerset. By 2014 HotSW had agreed, in secret and with no scrutiny, a growth strategy with government. Nothing was openly published until 2015. This growth strategy is built around doubling the local economy in 20 years (3.53% annual growth rate) by increasing productivity and population growth. The targets are wildly unrealistic and therefore undeliverable.

This government devolution experiment has come in for severe criticism from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) (e.g. 2016): “It is alarming that LEPs are not meeting basic standards of governance and transparency, such as disclosing conflicts of interest to the public….LEPs are led by the private sector, and stakeholders have raised concerns that they are dominated by vested interests that do not properly represent their business communities.”

As a result, the Department for Communities and Local Government commissioned a “Review of Local Enterprise Partnership Governance and Transparency”, Led by Mary Ney. This review made 17 recommendations (2017) to improve governance, accountability and scrutiny of LEPs. Although the Department accepted these recommendations, they adopted a “light touch” approach, leaving LEPs and Local Authorities to work out the details for themselves.

Not surprisingly the PAC concluded this year (June 2019):

“We welcome the improvements to LEP governance and transparency since we last examined these issues, but there is still a long way to go for all LEPs to reach the rigorous standards we expect. We remain concerned that LEP boards are not yet representative of their local areas and business communities and that local scrutiny and accountability arrangements are not strong enough considering the significant sums of public funding that LEPs manage.”

NOW TO THE HOTSW SCRUTINY REVIEW ITSELF.

First thing to note is that of the 17 members of this Joint Scrutiny Committee, only eleven attended the very first scrutiny meeting last November. This attendance dropped to ten in February and then to just five in June, with Devon County Councillor R Bloxham for Broadsclyst, being amongst the absentees. This is the bare minimum for a quorum. This scrutiny committee has all the appearance of being in crisis. Perhaps members feel out of their depth scrutinising regional economic issues? Perhaps members feel inhibited from diving deep where all past HoTSW decisions have been rubber stamped? Maybe they have been warned not to undermine the LEP for fear of losing central funds? Could HotSW be confusing them with detail (oldest administrative trick in the book)? There is a plea for shorter presentations up for discussion.

Scrutiny Committee Members have canvassed views from other County and Unitary Authorities to try to understand their Scrutiny arrangements for LEPs, and have concluded that the HotSW arrangements are “more developed than in many authorities”. “Current arrangements are having some impact but have further to go.” A report proposes some changes to strengthen the transparency and quality of scrutiny (e.g. to adopt the Devon County practice for public participation, web casting, public attendance and speaking) and minor tinkering with the Terms of Reference to allow them to be more pro-active.

For discussion is this list of how to judge their Scrutiny success over the next year, with only three meetings to do it in:

1. Positive and impactful relationship between Scrutiny and the LEP, evidenced by change or amendments to policy or decisions.
2. Being cited in advance of priorities, decisions and strategy arising for the LEP
3. Clarity on the Chair of the Board and LEP’s ambitions and how Scrutiny can add value particularly to investment strategy.
4. Representing the ambition and concerns of the South-West’s residents
5. Demonstrable contribution to productivity and growth by the LEP
6. Increasing democracy in regional government
7. Scrutiny to build a culture of learning and improvement, taking account of best practice nationally

THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF THINGS TO SCRUTINISE.

At the February 2019 meeting the annual HotSW performance review, commissioned from Ash Futures, was presented to this Scrutiny Committee. It gave an early view of progress already faltering.

https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/documents/g3570/Public%20reports%20pack%2014th-Feb-2019%2014.15%20Heart%20of%20the%20South%20West%20HotSW%20Local%20Enterprise%20Partnersh.pdf?T=10

“…….the review of economic data leads to the overall conclusion that the HoSW economy, at best, continues to track the ‘baseline’ growth scenario. That is, there is no firm evidence that it is achieving either ‘strong’ or ‘transformational’ growth as aspired to in the Strategic Economic Plan.” [Baseline – continuing to fall behind UK average].

“The plan outcome measures and objectives in the current economic environment do not currently look achievable, certainly in the short-term. …..It is our view that some of the outcome targets, particularly those associated with the ‘transformational’ target, now look very aspirational in their nature.”

“Currently, there is no ‘feedback loop’ back to the Strategic Investment Panel to develop its understanding of ‘what has worked well, and what not’ with investments made….. A better understanding of how investments have developed would lead to better long-term decision-making.”

Following that, the LEPs covering Cornwall, Devon and Somerset had an opportunity to submit evidence at the beginning of August to the Treasury Committee Inquiry into regional imbalances in the UK economy:

The preface to the evidence reads: “We have put forward two submissions; one on behalf of Cornwall Council and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership and another on behalf of the Heart of the South West Joint Committee and the HotSW Local Enterprise Partnership representing Devon, Plymouth, Somerset and Torbay.”

“We are submitting this joint letter as being neighbouring areas we have similar policy asks which the committee might find helpful to have highlighted as well as the nuances that are described in our two responses. There is no clear definition of what constitutes a region and we believe these two documents provide detailed insight into the complexity of this subject.”

Cornwall then followed this introduction with a detailed response for their part of the region comprising 4,342 words and four graphs but the detailed HotSW response was left blank. My understanding is that Local Authorities decided/were instructed to feed inputs to HotSW, stand back and let HotSW take the lead. Unfortunately, any County inputs have got “lost in the post” and the only organisation that took the time, trouble and effort to answer questions raised in the Inquiry terms of reference from the perspective of Devon’s economy was the East Devon Alliance.

http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/treasury-committee/regional-imbalances-in-the-uk/written/103800.html

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

Philip Aldrick, economics editor The Times, summarised why the Treasury will become more interested in regional funding in an article he wrote in 2018:

“….One theory doing the rounds is that the Treasury wants to know if its business support schemes are working. A crunch is coming. England’s 39 local enterprise partnerships [now reduced to 38- one went rogue], designed to boost growth, are funded largely with EU grants. For 2014 to 2020, they secured €6.51 billion of European Structural and Investment funds. Of that, €2.5 billion was allocated to “enhancing the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises”, about a tenth of which went to less developed regions.”

“After Brexit, now formally delayed until 2021 after yesterday’s transition deal, the money will no longer make the round trip via Brussels. It will come directly from Westminster, bringing with it more political accountability. If the money is not driving productivity, which it patently isn’t, the Treasury may decide the financial medicine could be administered more effectively.”

And the PAC in the 2019 report (referred to above) picks up the same theme:

“Despite spending up to £12 billion of taxpayers’ money [between 2015/16 and 2020/21], the Department has no real understanding of the impact which the Local Growth Fund has had on local economic growth. The Department chose not to set quantifiable objectives for Growth Deals. Its assertion that every £1 of local growth funding could generate £4.81 in benefits is an unsubstantiated estimate. Despite receiving quarterly performance data from LEPs, the Department has not used this to build up an understanding of the impact that local growth funding has had nationally, nor has it measured what value for money LEPs have delivered so far.”

Spending vast sums of tax payers’ money without strong scrutiny and without demonstrable value for money isn’t going to continue. Treasury watchers will be familiar with their scepticism over future plans that lack realism. Ambition not only has to be deliverable but be seen to be delivered.”