Devolution doesn’t always mean taking back control

Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, successive UK governments have fiddled around with ways of devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall.  The most radical has been Scottish devolution, which continues to evolve.  The least coherent has been the patchwork of schemes developed across England, ranging from a well-thought out arrangement for London, with a directly elected mayor and assembly, to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along “devolution deals” for the rest.

The coalition government of 2010-15 abolished – wisely – the regional governance bureaucracies.  The first big replacement idea was Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), intended as “business-led” mechanisms for spending public money.  The areas covered by LEPs were in some cases obvious, based for example on established city regions or former metropolitan counties.  In others the rationale was less clear, perhaps nowhere more so than the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP, covering a massive area from Plymouth to the south of Bristol [1].  It’s tempting to think that after Cornwall decided to go their own way and Bristol wasn’t having any truck with its Somerset neighbours, that HotSW was the “bit left over”.

The performance of these fundamentally secretive and undemocratic bodies is not the focus of this post [2].  They are relevant because the LEP areas have in some cases – including HotSW – formed the basis of the subsequent devolution proposals in England.

The government has been inviting groups of local authorities to submit proposals for devolving decision-making in certain functions, particularly infrastructure and economic development, but not limited to these.  The rationale behind this approach is that increasing productivity, a key goal of government policy, is best achieved by local targeting of support measures through local authorities and business interests working together.  The government has made it clear that access to some central funding is dependent on devolution deals being agreed.  Invariably, local authorities across the area commit to setting up a “combined authority” to take the decisions.  Unlike London, this would not be directly elected but would be made up of the leaders of the constituent councils plus non-elected representatives of the NHS and the LEP.  Initially, agreement to a having directly-elected mayor was a condition of a devolution deal but the government now seems to be less rigid on this.

One of the problems with this approach is that it was designed for large urban areas.  Greater Manchester, for example, has operated as a partnership of councils across a coherent area since the 1960s when Passenger Transport Authorities were set up.  Manchester is the trail-blazer in the current devolution game, and it clearly works for them.

What is less clear is that the combined authority structure will work well in those areas of England that aren’t part of a conurbation.  A pretentious-sounding body called The Independent Commission on Economic Growth and the Future of Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England produced a report last year arguing for devolution deals for the rest of England [3].  It does make the useful point that LEP areas do not in most cases coincide with functional economic areas (a conclusion which should be enough to discredit the whole idea of LEPs), but is otherwise a typical product of this debate in that it focusses on structures and “partnerships” from which communities are largely excluded.

The councils within the HotSW area have submitted a devolution bid to the government [4].  The bid identifies 6 challenges for the area (low productivity growth, limited labour market, patchy performance in innovation and enterprise, an ageing population, health and care integration, infrastructure and connectivity) and 6 “Golden Opportunities” for improving growth and productivity (marine, nuclear, aerospace and advanced engineering, data analytics, rural productivity, health and care).  The bid has a wholly economic focus: other than in references to care, the word “social” does not appear in the document, and there is no acknowledgement of the impacts of the plans on the natural environment.

If the bid succeeds – and at least some of the councils are treating the whole exercise with a degree of caution – decision-making on the plans and services covered by the bid will be sucked upwards from the councils and the people they represent.  How the combined authority will balance the interests of, say, Plymouth with those of people in the Mendips will be discussed in officer-led groups behind closed doors – because that is the only way “partnership” working can be made to operate in practice.  The need to prepare for joint meetings gives authority officers huge influence over agendas and decisions because of the need to coordinate positions and identify common solutions in advance of meetings.

The combined authority itself will be made up of leaders of the constituent councils and others.  It will not be directly elected.  Trying to influence its decisions will be next to impossible for individuals and community groups.  The bid’s economic focus ignores environmental and community questions completely, so being able to provide a counter-balance is hugely important.  As it is, the bid’s environmental credentials are defined by the partnership’s LEP-led role as a cheerleader for the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Other devolution bids across England generate similar challenges.  At a time when disillusion with our politics is at an all-time high, it is puzzling – to put it mildly – that decision-making is to move even further away from the people most affected

 

NOTES:

[1]  The map of LEP areas at www.lepnetwork.net/the-network-of-leps/ shows just how large the area is.

[2]  An excellent House of Commons briefing note (July 2016) provides a concise guide to LEPs including reviews of their performance – see www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05651.pdf

[3]  See www.local.gov.uk/non-met-commission

[4]  The bid document is at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/files/2016/01/Heart-of-the-South-West-Devolution-Prospectus.pdf

Advertisements

A four and a half pound note?

Exeter leads the way in unconventional money.

450 years ago the Exeter Ship Canal – the first canal in England with locks – was opened.  Built to replace the unnavigable River Exe – which had been blocked by successive Earls of Devon to force goods from the sea to unload at Topsham and reach Exeter by land and so pay their exorbitant tolls – it predated the canal mania by over 200 years.  A grand scheme to link Exeter to the Bristol Channel via a canal passing near Tiverton and on to Bridgwater never materialised in full, though a Tiverton branch survives today.

So without musing too long on what might have been, the opening of the Exeter Ship Canal in 1566 remains an important moment in the city’s history [1].  And what better way to commemorate that anniversary than by an unusual embellishment to a scheme intended to benefit the local economy.

The Exeter Pound has been legal tender in the city since September 2015 [2].  Like other complementary or community currency schemes, it aims to ensure more of the wealth generated by local trade remains local, so boosting independent businesses and enhancing the range of traders available to the local community.

Yesterday (30 July), a new note was unveiled to join the £E1, £E5, £E10 and £E20 notes already in circulation.  Unusually, its value is £E4.50p.  The denomination was selected to mark the 450th anniversary of the opening of the canal, and the design of the note, shown below, reflects this.

450 note

A large-size mock-up of the note was brought up the canal to the city by boat and presented by an awesomely well-dressed replica of a Tudor merchant – in reality a director of the Exeter Pound Community Interest Company – to the city’s Lord Mayor.  The presentation was apt, because Exeter City Council provided resources to help get the scheme off the ground.

presentation

All a bit of fun, but with a serious purpose.  According to NEF [3] small shops are closing at a rate of 2,000 a year, and small and medium-sized businesses employ 58% of the private sector workforce.  Community currencies can combat this: for every £1 spent they return significantly more than £1 to the local economy.  This is the so-called multiplier effects which means the local pound is spent repeatedly in the local economy.  By contrast, spending your £1 in a national chain shop means that much less than £1 remains local.  That’s why the chains are not allowed to join the Exeter Pound scheme, and only local, independent businesses can trade in it.

There are 163 of them in Exeter– and well worth your support.  These businesses exist to serve the local community, and are the antithesis of the self-serving and greedy culture which has been so visible in the downfall of BHS.  They are an essential part of rediscovering business decency and community-oriented values, not just here in Exeter, but everywhere where a community currency is taking off [4]. If  nations can be bound together by national currencies (ie not the Euro) so can communities by their local pounds.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The Exeter Ship Canal’s future is by no means secure. A support group, the Friends of the Exeter Ship Canal – friendsofexetershipcanal.co.uk/ – has recently been established to help ensure the canal’s future as an active waterway and as a beautiful part of Exeter’s heritage landscape.  They welcome new members.

[2]   The Exeter Pound website – exeterpound.org.uk – provides all the information you need about the scheme, including the traders who accept £Es and where you can change sterling for £Es.

[3]  The New Economics Foundation (NEF) website has a wealth of information about the benefits of community currencies – see http://www.neweconomics.org/issues/entry/community-currencies

[4]  As ever, the south-west is well-represented with community currencies.  Schemes are operating or in development in Bristol, Cornwall, Plymouth, Totnes and Stroud.

History speaks

For the first 7 days in July Exeter’s Northernhay Gardens hosted a unique and very moving memorial to the 19,240 allied soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 100 years before.

The project was conceived by Rob Heard, a Somerset artist, and East Devon-based folk singer Steve Knightley.  A website – http://www.thesomme19240.co.uk/ – includes videos and other material about the memorial which enhance understanding.

20160707_161317

The pictures here don’t do it justice.  Each of the tiny shrouds, one for each soldier, was hand-stitched by Rob Heard over a period of three years.  Some 50,000 people – equivalent to nearly half the city’s population – visited the memorial.

20160707_160859

World War One was a travesty of human endeavour.  Fought because governments and dynasties wanted territory, power and trade, and fuelled by nationalism, its principal legacy was the deaths of millions of “ordinary” people.  The flawed post-war settlement laid the ground for the rise of the Nazis and the second world war.  What became the European Union was created to prevent Europe ever going to war within itself again.

It’s a pity the EU referendum didn’t come after the Somme commemorations, rather than before them.  Had it done so, perhaps fewer people would have been prepared to throw away the structure, however imperfect, that has given us 60 years of peace and co-operation.

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements.  Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage.  Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.

But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy.  And here in Devon, we have a fine example.

On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon [1].  The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”.  A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”.  The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.

Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure.  The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.

In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board.  Nothing at all.  So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it.  Nothing at all.

Next step, ask the council.  After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception .  However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.

So, here we are.  A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.

Open government, indeed.  I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability.  Watch this space for their response.

The second part of this post is at http://www.agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-2/

 

NOTES

[1]  The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/    The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.

Fifth of May, Polling Day

A guide to what goes on when the campaigning is over

7am.  Take up position at the entrance to a city centre polling station, as a teller for the Green Party.  Put on the party rosette which resembles the badges stuck on pigs for winning first prize at an agricultural show.  Lib Dem and Labour also arrive, but no sign of Tories – we collectively assume that they have no hope of winning a seat in the ward, so are putting their efforts into winnable areas.  Labour have misread the rules on what can be shown on a rosette and have deleted their party name.  Realise I’ve forgotten to bring a book to read.  Sporadic chat amongst the tellers.  40 voters in the first two hours after the polls open.  But then we’re not really a city of early risers.

What is telling?
It’s about getting the maximum number of people to vote.  When canvassing support on the doorstep, political parties make a note of people who say they will support them.  When a person comes to the polling station to vote, tellers will ask for their individual polling number, and send back lists of those who have voted to the party’s local HQ.  These lists are matched against the list of known party supporters, to identify who hasn’t voted.  Known supporters who haven’t voted are then visited and encouraged to vote; and known supporters who have voted are not bothered again on the day.  Tellers don’t know how people vote – only that they have voted.

9am.  Hand over the telling sheets to my relief.  Coffee, and home.

11am.  Back at the polling station for the second of my two-hour stints.  Still no Tory.  Several voters come to wrong polling station because they’ve always voted there, and now find that following the ward boundary changes they should be voting somewhere else.  We politely ask a youth for his polling number, and his girlfriend is about to proffer hers when he looks hard at us, says “nah”, and walks off.  We conclude he’s voting Tory.  Another voter looks at the Labour red rosette – without words – and asks the teller which party he’s from.

1pm.  Handover and home for lunch.  Hear that Barnet Council in London has turned voters away because the polling station was using an incomplete electoral register.

3pm.  Third shift begins.  Still no Tory.  Discussion among the three of us about when the result will be announced.  No one believes it will be by 2am, as suggested by the Returning Officer, and opinion varies as between 3am and 5am.  A voter asks me about the Green Party candidates.  I intone, in a voice that brooks no argument, that electoral law forbids a teller from discussing the merits of candidates when in the vicinity of a polling station.  And I feel a bit of a prat, even though it’s a sensible rule.

5pm.  Handover and home.

6pm.  We go out and vote.  Do my good deed for the Green Party in the local council election.  Write a complaint on my Police and Crime Commissioner ballot form rather than vote for a collection of people I’ve never heard of, or from.  Wonder why the government thought directly elected PCCs would be more “accountable” than the police authorities they replaced.

10pm.  Arrive at the count, where I am officially a “Counting Agent” and have a pass to prove it.  Because everyone has three votes and not everyone gives all three to a single party, the counting process is protracted.  First, separate out the PCC ballot papers to be dealt with elsewhere.  Second, check the number of ballot papers is correct – and keep recounting until it is.  Third, separate out the ballot papers where all the votes are for the same party, and count them.  Fourth, subject the papers where the voter has chosen one than one party to a technique known as the “grass skirt”[1].  Fifth, identify unclear or spoiled ballot papers, and check the total number of ballot papers is still correct.

Finally, candidates and agents agree with the returning officer – the person in charge – what papers can be disregarded as spoiled or unclear.

And then, ward by ward, the result is announced, though the overall position was clear long before then.  Thanks to our appalling first past the past system, Labour got three-quarters of the seats with less than 45% of the available votes, while the Greens and UKIP got no seats despite having over 12% of the available votes between them.

4.15am.  Go home.  Go to bed.

 

NOTES

[1]  This is too complex to explain here, but those interested can watch a video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwPlhwiI418

The Salty Puffin

Wexford, Ireland

No, it’s not the name of a new eaterie, but a rather weak pun.  At the age of sixty-something, I have finally seen puffins in the wild.  The location was Great Saltee, the larger of the two Saltee Islands off Ireland’s south Wexford coast.  The other island, unsurprisingly, is Little Saltee.

Anyone who immediately thinks of Compton Mackenzie’s fictional Great Todday and Little Todday [1] should put them out of mind.  The Saltees are very different indeed.

According to the island’s website [2], the privately owned Great Saltee is the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland.  It is designated a Special Protection Area under the EU’s Birds Directive [3].  Weather permitting, a small fast ferry from Kilmore Quay takes visitors almost to the shore, but the shallow approach requires a transfer into a stout rubber dinghy for the final few yards.  Wear trousers and boots that you don’t mind dunking in sea water!

There is only one occupied building on the island, a house used at times by the owning family and surrounded by several derelict barns or cottages.  There are no other residents, no loos, no camping sites, no cafés, no shelters, no “visitor centre”, and no “interpretation boards”.  Just a few day-trippers, including twitchers, and an awesome number of birds.

Most of the birds congregate on and in the cliffs on the north side of the island.  Not being a bird-watcher, my recognition skills are limited.  But from pictures I know a puffin when I see one.  And a couple of dozen were on easy view, occasionally disappearing in pairs into holes burrowed into the cliff sides.  After all, it is the breeding season.

Puffins are stunning to watch in flight.  Their bright orange webbed feet, matching the colour of their bill, flap furiously and appear to help them change direction before landing, rather like aircraft ailerons.  They are also beautiful to look at when standing still.

A striking feature of the north coast of Great Saltee is the noise.  Birds are not quiet, and when gathered in large groups sound raucous.  What the island’s website describes the “muttered growls” of the guillemot resemble a revving diesel engine when they are growling collectively.

I think I spotted choughs (though they might have been oystercatchers) and various varieties of gull, none as unpleasant – visually or temperamentally – as the scavengers of England’s westcountry coasts.

For getting to know a bit about birds in an “away-from-it-all” setting, a visit to Great Saltee is hard to beat.  I’m really glad I went.  And seeing puffins at long last will be one of those lasting pleasures.

NOTES:

[1]  In his comic novel Whisky Galore, first published in 1947.

[2]  http://www.salteeislands.info/Index2.htm

[3]  A legal protection that would presumably disappear in the UK if we leave the EU.

Is it really #GreenerIn ?

The EU is seen as a defender of the environment, but is this still true today?

Caroline Lucas MP and others have argued that the UK’s membership of the EU has led to significant environmental protection measures that UK governments would have been unlikely to take themselves [1].  Lucas cites pollution control and wildlife protection as important EU measures.  As she says, “Pollution and environmental degradation don’t respect national borders.”

Few people would argue with this.  But it’s a big step from there to say that our environment will always be safe in the EU of the future.  The current European Commission, which took office at the end of 2014, has a less sympathetic view of environmental protection than its predecessors.  For the clearest available evidence of this, it is worth reading in full Chairman Juncker’s letter of appointment to the Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella [2].  It’s worth remembering that of all the EU institutions, only the Commission can propose legislation.

In the past, Environment Commissioners have been able, by and large, to plough their own furrow.  Not any more.  The Juncker Commission has several Vice-Presidents, whose job is to coordinate the work of the single portfolio Commissioners.

Juncker’s letter to Vella’s clearly limits his room for manoeuvre:

“You will, in particular, contribute to projects steered and coordinated by the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness and the Vice-President for Energy Union. For other initiatives requiring a decision from the Commission, you will, as a rule, liaise closely with the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.”

And then, just to rub it in:

“The EU has a well-developed environment policy with a rather complete and mature legal framework.”   

In other words, no more legislation, please.  Unless, of course, it is to simplify and render more business-friendly existing legislation.  Vella is told that his first specific task is:

“Continuing to overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose. In the first part of the mandate, I would ask you to carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.”

No prizes for guessing what “modern” means.

None of this is to argue for or against Brexit.  It’s simply to remind ourselves that in public policy, as with investments, past performance is no guide to the future.

NOTES:

[1]  See for example https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/caroline-lucas/its-time-to-make-progressive-case-for-staying-in-eu .

[2]  http://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/cwt/files/vella_en.pdf