Looking at the papers at the moment, there is a stark contrast to be witnessed within their pages – on the one hand, local people out in the rain and cold, holding bedraggled posters, begging for hospitals to be saved, for school funds not to be cut, for councils to hold strong against insistent developers – while on the other hand, the self-congratulations of business CEOs and the LEP, the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, on winning yet another enormous handout from the government – £43.56 million this time. This brings their total budget to over £200 million.
Where has this £43 million come from? If the government can’t find money to help keep local hospitals open, how can they suddenly produce this huge windfall? Council budgets here in the South West have been reduced on average by about 40%, forcing councils to cut back on essential services. Local councils are having to make some very difficult decisions. They are being kept afloat by income from the New Homes Bonuses, money which they are given for every house built. This however, puts them at odds with their constituents, who see thousands of unaffordable new houses spreading over their fields, damaging agriculture, tourism and local infrastructure. Council taxes have gone up, business rates have gone up, services are being cut, yet suddenly this huge windfall has appeared.
The LEP, who have been given this bonanza to share out, are an interesting organisation to be responsible for this amount of public money. They are a self-elected group of business CEOs and councillors. The majority of business represented are from the construction industry. There are also representatives from the arms industry, cyber technology, the nuclear industry and people with financial interests in house building. Their meetings are held in private, they are unaccountable and are not required to be transparent. They are responsible for the division of an enormous amount of public money and yet their board represents the construction industries who benefit the most from the windfall, leading to many awkward conflicts of interest.
Their choices on where to spend this money reflect their own interests too closely in my opinion. Money, which it can be argued, has been taken from council funds, is being sent to fund an upgrade to the train station in Plymouth, to help a proposed new town on the edge of Newton Abbot, to build a high technology centre in Torbay. All of this investment is good of course, but if it comes at the expense of our hospitals, schools and roads, then questions need to be asked about who is making the decision on where that money goes. If money is being drained from council funds and the public purse to build massive new developments, developments which benefit the businesses that the people making the decisions are in charge of, then the public need to be a lot more informed than they are. In light of the recent scandals shaking LEPs in other areas, as reported by the Times and the Mail, it would make a lot of sense to ask for a great deal more transparency. To quote the Times article, “Millions of pounds have been spent, however, on businesses run by board members of the partnerships or on the companies of people close to them.” I’m sure our LEP have done nothing wrong, so a little more openness in the way they function cannot hurt.
The lack of openness is especially worrying when you see how fundamentally the changes that the LEP are behind, are changing the face of Devon and Somerset. Housing for example – the LEP have come up with a figure of 169,000 new houses needed for Devon and Somerset. How have they come up with this figure? Nobody seems to know – several councillors in my local area of the South Hams have asked and as they put it, ‘been fobbed off’. The LEP don’t need to answer questions and you can’t do a freedom of information on them as they are not a public body. It’s mentioned that this figure is possibly based on local housing needs assessments – so where do these housing assessments come from? How does a town like Newton Abbot, which has had a static or declining population for many years, suddenly need to double in size according to a ‘local housing need assessment’? I was told by a chief planning officer that he didn’t understand the way they were calculated. I would argue that they are based on market needs not local needs.
Who will benefit then from having a high housing figure? Well the people who develop the land will and it is unfortunate that so many of them are sitting on the board of the LEP. It doesn’t inspire confidence. Many of the houses that have been built are not selling, but that doesn’t seem to stop the LEP and various councils represented on its board, from producing larger and larger plans – the one for a Greater Exeter has just come out. If they want local people to support them, they must explain where the money is going and why. They must put the money into supporting agriculture, tourism, the environment and services instead of just endless, huge infrastructural projects. They must consult and discuss properly and answer freedom of information requests, otherwise like the other scandal-ridden LEPs, it will just resemble a scam. A scam whereby local services are cut and public money is diverted into supporting private industry and how does that really help any of us.