Comment piece for Western Morning News

Devolution for WMN

I am getting increasingly concerned about our devolution process here in the South West.  Devolution is different in each region, but one thing they have in common is a lack of public consultation.  In fact here in Devon, most people don’t even know we are in the process and that many of the councils in Devon and Somerset have signed up already, Cornwall has already finished the process.

People don’t know what is happening and that is concerning, as the implications of devolution will impact all of us and I personally find the actual devolution bid extremely worrying.  A Devon county councillor commented on devolution recently, he said, “The Government has taken away the funds that local authorities were once spending to meet the needs of local people – for affordable homes, care services, repairing local roads etc. It now offers to give back £195.5 million – but only if we endorse a package of mega-projects in which we have had no say. This is coercion, not ‘devolution’. The decisions about how this council spent its money were once democratically decided; the proposals in this Devolution Prospectus were not. It is not the economic recovery plan that residents would have created themselves if they had been given the opportunity.’

The privatization of local authorities in other words,  yet we know so little about it.  We definitely don’t know about the LEP, who are at the heart of it.  LEP stands for Local Enterprise Partnership and the one for Devon and Somerset is known as the Heart of the South West LEP (H0tSW LEP).  It is basically a business quango made up of business men and women and a few elected councillors, who channel money from the government and from Europe into local business and enterprise, or that it was what it was originally set up to do.  They are the ones who are enabling devolution down here.  Very little is known about them although they have a website detailing their aims and grants, but they hold their meetings in private and it is incredibly difficult to see the minutes of those meetings.  They have about £4 bn to spend and a lot of that money is going into the Hinkley C nuclear plant.  I personally do not want money spent on a highly controversial nuclear project, at a time when our local services are being cut to an absolute minimum, but I have no say in the matter and nor does anyone else, that I can see.  There is so little transparency in this process that  even councillors who are supposed to be involved in the devolution bid, are struggling to find information.  We do know that they are about growth and not much else it seems.

This seems to me to be the opposite of localism.  In the future who is going to control planning applications?  Will it be the local authority still or will it be the LEP?  If it is the LEP, I cannot understand how there won’t be a conflict of interest. The proposal is also about creating a new authority but there is no information that says which, if any, current body it would replace. The HotSW LEP is made up of elected councillors as well as business people, but the process is opaque and undemocratic.  Many of those on the board, who are self-appointed have business interests in property and construction.  I am sure it is all above board, but it seems to me vulnerable to corruption.  I would like some guarantees, I would like some transparency, I would like to have my democratic rights adhered to, but I can’t see it happening.

The Devon councillor also writes, “There are proposals (in the devolution bid) to build 179,000 new houses across Devon and Cornwall – but the plan ignores the priorities of all the Councils across the South West that want affordable housing for local people – not unregulated market housing. Whilst “Housing” is mentioned repeatedly, three key words are totally missing from this document – “affordable”, “social” and “rented”. Those are the kinds of houses we most urgently need, not commercial housing.This proposal is an attack on Democracy; its priorities are not the priorities of local people; it puts the needs of big business before the needs of local people and it is helping to bail out businesses, such as Hinkley C, that are nowhere near being financially viable without massive subsidy.”

Where does this figure of 179,000 houses come from?  Who is going to build them?  Why do we need them?  Who are the LEP to decide such matters?  I find it all very disturbing.  Devolution was supposed to be about local areas deciding on local matters, not the takeover of council services by corporate interest.  I read recently that devolution meant ‘the TTIP for the Shires’ and I worry that they are right.

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