Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> concern grows

The District Council issued a glowing press release earlier this month:
10 December 2015 - A step closer to devolution deal at East Devon - East Devon

It was covered by the local media:

Devolution for South West ‘would create jobs’

16:30 11 December 2015 Harvey Gavin

Cllr Paul Diviani

A transfer of powers and cash from central Government could boost the whole South West region’s productivity and create jobs, East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) chief executive has said.

District councillors have discussed the first steps of the proposed Heart of the South West (HOTSW) devolution bid, which could eventually see EDDC, alongside 16 other South West local authorities, gain more autonomy from Westminster.

EDDC chief executive Mark Williams told the council’s overview and scrutiny committees that the HOTSW bid would focus on three ‘golden opportunities’ for economic growth. One of these was the ‘greater Exeter’ area, which would centre on the multi-million-pound investment at the Science Park, Met Office and Exeter University.

Mr Williams said East Devon, as part of the ‘greater Exeter hinterlands’, would inevitably benefit from this investment. Mr Williams added that the road to devolution would be a long one, and would involve consultation with councillors and the public, if and when it progresses. “It is just a bid. That is all it is at this stage,” he said. “It doesn’t bind us to anything, it doesn’t commit us to anything.”

The council’s overview and scrutiny committees were asked to grant EDDC’s leader the power to sign the devolution bid, which has yet to be finalised, on behalf of the council. But several committee members were unhappy with granting such authority before they had seen the finished document. Lympstone councillor Rob Longhurst said: “I don’t like voting for something and giving delegated powers for something that I haven’t seen.”

Councillors agreed to revisit the issue at the full council meeting on Wednesday, December 16, after members have had a chance to review the bid. Speaking after the meeting, council leader Councillor Paul Diviani said: “Devolving powers and resources to those best able to tackle our challenges and maximise our opportunities will release the productivity, competitiveness and growth that we and the nation need.”

Devolution for South West ‘would create jobs’ - News - Exmouth Journal

However, all sorts of issues have arisen:
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> 'democratic deficit'?
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> nuclear vs solar >>> centralism vs localism
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> "to mandate bodies of unelected businessmen to define and effect policy without any scrutiny or accountability to electors or their representatives."
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> "confidentiality" vs open debate and public consultation
Futures Forum: Devolution, Local Enterprise Partnerships & accountability

The independent County Cllr Claire Wright raised several of these point in a piece for the Express and Echo today:

Comment: Why is renewable energy sidelined in devolution plan?

By Exeter Express and Echo | Posted: December 29, 2015

The proposed Hinkley C nuclear power station on the Somerset coast

Claire Wright, Independent County Councillor for Ottery Rural, challenges East Devon's MP over the Tories' 'vague and tricky' plans to hand more responsiblity to local government

I see that Mr Swire has been publicly critical of those of us who have expressed concerns about devolution.

Devolution is essentially the transfer of some government responsibilities to local councils.

I am not opposed to the principle of devolution, however, Chancellor, George Osborne has strong-armed councils into taking on these extra responsibilities, which gives me a cause for considerable scepticism.

A group of councils in Devon and Somerset, as well as the NHS and businesses are currently negotiating a deal to be put to ministers for devolved powers.

As Devon County Council prepares to shave off nearly £40m again, from its budgets in a few weeks, thanks to austerity measures, it will be even less well equipped than before to provide vital services.

But now Local Enterprise Partnerships (run by largely by business people) must take a leading role in preparing a bid to government for devolved powers. Ministers have insisted that bids must be business focused.

At the Devon County Council meeting in December, councillors voted in favour of my motion to allow public consultation on the bid. Although, from Mr Swire's recent opinion, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was a Conservative proposal!

East Devon District Council Independents (especially the East Devon Alliance councillors) have been very proactive in raising concerns about plans, which up until now have been extraordinarily vague and tricky to get to grips with.

From what I have seen however, the bids will be very big business focused. And politically conservative, with a huge emphasis on the importance of Hinkley Point for example … while renewable energy, which has been a thriving industry in the south west – or at least it will be until the 64 per cent subsidy cut hits in a few weeks, doesn't appear to get a look in.

Mr Swire might not like Independents expressing opposing views to government policy (has he ever voted against the party line?) but I tend to take the view that councillors (and MPs) are here to represent constituents, not to protect corporate interests or nod in sage agreement with every ministerial announcement.

I have raised many important issues in many of my columns in this newspaper and invited Mr Swire's to respond.

He appears to favour silence, however.

Comment: Why is renewable energy sidelined in devolution plan? | Exeter Express and Echo

And the Herald is carrying a very critical piece from the chair of the East Devon Alliance:

Council’s devolution talks criticised

06:30 28 December 2015 Harvey Gavin

EDA chairman Paul Arnott

A district council decision to discuss a ‘multi-billion-pound’ transfer of cash and powers to the South West in private has been branded ‘disgraceful’ by the independent East Devon Alliance (EDA).

The Heart of the South West (HOTSW) devolution deal could eventually see East Devon District Council (EDDC) and 16 other local authorities in Devon and Somerset gain more independence from Whitehall.

Supporters say that power over spending on things like growth, infrastructure and health and social care would boost the region’s economy and help create 163,000 new jobs by 2030.

But critics have raised concerns over a lack of public consultation and that the project could end up ‘devolving powers to big businesses’.

EDDC convened last week to consider the latest draft of the bid. The item was heard after the press and public had been excluded from the meeting.

The council says that, although the exact details of the bid are confidential at the moment, it is committed to keeping members fully informed through the process.

But the EDA has condemned the way EDDC handled the discussions.

Its chairman, Paul Arnott, said: “It is unacceptable that councillors of any party are only being provided with information on this multi-billion-pound devolution proposal after insistently demanding it from the council clique.

“Then, when it does arrive, its platitudes and unevidenced waffle are marked ‘confidential’, which misnomer is then used later to close down public debate on grounds of ‘confidentiality’. [Last week’s] handling of this matter was disgraceful – an insult to the free press and the council tax payers alike.”

An EDDC spokeswoman said: “Despite the confidential nature of discussions surrounding the devolution deal, we are committed to ensuring that councillors are kept fully informed as the bid goes through further development.

“In January 2016, another draft of the proposal document will be produced and then agreed among the 20 organisations (including 17 local authorities) who are working in partnership in response to the Government’s offer to devolve power and budgets from Westminster to local authorities.”

Council’s devolution talks criticised - News - Sidmouth Herald

The East Devon Watch blog has been carrying several critical pieces on the subject:
East Devon Alliance on devolution bid secrecy | East Devon Watch
East Devon Alliance criticises secret devolution talks | East Devon Watch
Group which may eventually run Devon and Somerset is not representative | East Devon Watch
Devolution | East Devon Watch
Councillors: are you sure our LEP and your council are operating properly? | East Devon Watch
Devolution: Independent DCC Councillor Claire Wright and East Devon Alliance express grave concerns on the process | East Devon Watch

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