Month: November 2017

Pursuit of elusive ‘devolution’ deal is leading to a new layer of bureaucracy: an unelected, one-party ‘Heart of the South West’ combined authority

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speaking at Cabinet 8.11.17This week’s DCC Cabinet meeting approved a Conservative proposal to set up a formal Joint Committee with Somerset (report at item 7 of the agenda). Objections were raised to aspects of the proposal by the leaders of the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups, and I spoke on behalf of the Non-Aligned Group (which comprises the three Independents and one Green councillor). You can watch the debate, and read my speech below:

I think we know what is going with devolution. We have a government which is ripping the heart out of local government spending, pushing services to the border of viability; this is causing enormous difficulties for this council but also driving down local incomes and so weakening our regional economy. But at the same time it is holding out the carrot of giving us limited extra powers and returning a modest bit of the lost funding, if we jump through its ‘devolution’ hoops. The government barely seems to know what it’s doing over ‘devolution’ and the hoops keep changing, but we still have to guess what they are and do our best to jump.

And so we end up with the papers in front of us today. We are asked to endorse a ‘vision’ of higher productivity and economic growth and create an extra layer of bureaucracy to support it. The problem is that the vision bears little relation to reality. The ambition is to double the regional economy in 18 years, i.e. to increase its size by 100% – this requires a compound growth rate of 3.94%. In the real world, the actual growth rate in the SW over the last 18 years has been 30% and the annual rate 1.47%. Nationally, the UK economy has never grown by more than 3% p.a. in any of the last 18 years, and is currently veering downwards below 1.5%.

So we are asked to believe that we can increase local productivity growth from below the national average to well above it, and thereby buck not only regional but also national growth trends. How are we going to that? By waving the wand of the Hinkley nuclear white elephant and hoping that it somehow spreads some stardust over Devon? I can tell you that so far the LEP has produced almost nothing which offers help to the economy in the rural, small-town, coastal Devon which most of us represent.

 

Let’s take a reality check – if I come to the budget meeting and tell you, ‘the economy will grow by 4%, business rate receipts will shoot up, so spend, spend, spend’, you are going to look on me as a madman, and rightly so. So why should Devon County Council buy this phoney prospectus? And why should we embark on radical constitutional change to support it?

I know this is only a proposal for a Joint Committee, with limited financial implications. But it is clearly presented as enabling us to ‘move relatively quickly to establish a Combined Authority’ if that is deemed necessary. We already have 3 tiers of local government. This is the beginning of creating a fourth tier, without a mandate, without elections, and without balanced political representation.

95% of the people of Devon don’t even know they’re living in something called the ‘Heart of the South West’. It says everything about the lack of democracy in this so-called devolution that we are using this PR-speak rather than the county names which people understand. I know the Government prefers cross-boundary devolution projects, but Cornwall got a stand-alone deal, and we are much bigger in both population and area. 

Apart from Hinkley there is no strong reason for us to tie ourselves to Somerset rather than Cornwall or Dorset. Our local government is being distorted to support an anachronistic nuclear project – for the benefit of companies owned by the French and Chinese states – instead of developing renewable energy for which we have a good basis in the SW.

I have this Cabinet down as a group of a level-headed people. But here we have fantasy economics, making claims which are about as credible as the figures on Boris’s battlebus, and constitutional change which means that Devon people and their councillors are asked to start handing over democratic control to a one-party quango in conjunction with unelected business people.

Since the Government is always changing its mind about devolution, there is no reason why we shouldn’t change our minds too. I ask you to

 

  1. go back to the Government with a realistic agenda for Devon, that addresses the needs of all areas of the county and all sectors of our economy and society
  2. back off from this unnecessary proposal for a joint committee.

 

 

Devon County Council’s Cabinet supports Plastic Free Coastlines after primary school children’s pleas

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My Independent colleague Cllr Frank Biederman this week succeeded in getting DCC’s Cabinet to endorse initiatives to achieve plastic-free coastlines, after very articulate speeches by two children from Georgeham Primary School in his North Devon division. Frank’s motion said:

‘This Devon County Council supports Plastic Free Coastlines, committing to plastic free alternatives and supporting plastic free initiatives within Devon. The Council commits to lead by example to remove single-use plastic items from its premises. Also it must encourage plastic free initiatives, promoting the campaign and supporting its events. A representative of this Council will become a member of the Plastic Free Coastlines Steering group’.

The Cabinet agreed that the Council be recommended to:

i)  support the spirit of the Notice of Motion, which aims to provide leadership in avoiding single-use plastic items in order to achieve a ‘Plastic Free Coastline’; and

ii)  commit to addressing this issue further through this Authority’s environmental performance agenda, including a review of single-use plastic items and how suitable alternatives to these might continue to be adopted.

Devon County Council review of 20mph speed limits coming in the first half of 2018

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At Devon County Council’s Cabinet meeting this week I spoke in support of Cllr Jacqi Hodgson’s motion:

‘With rising concerns about road safety for pedestrian and cyclists and in response to the growing calls for 20 mph speed limits in villages, this Council will welcome and consider proposals from Town and Parish Councils for 20 mph speed limits in residential areas, town and village centres and associated approach roads’.

I mentioning that speed is an issue in several places in the Seaton and Colyton division, where communities’ complaints about living with busy through-routes are the biggest local issues

The Cabinet advised that ‘a blanket call for Town and Parish Councils to propose 20mph speed limits would be premature at this stage given there is a commitment to reviewing the current policy.’

However it was reported that the national Atkins report on 20mph limits will be published in February, and Cllr Alistair Dewhirst, Chair of the scrutiny committee dealing with Highways (on which I sit) said that he expected reviewing speed limit policy will be a major area of work for the committee following this.

Devon County Council’s Cabinet agrees to ‘work towards the adoption’ of the Ethical Care Charter

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At this week’s meeting of Devon County Council’s Cabinet I seconded a motion by Devon’s only Green councillor, Jacqi Hodgson, asking the Council to sign up to the Ethical Care Charter proposed by UNISON. The Cabinet resolved ‘that the Council notes the requirements of the Charter and recommends officers work with its contracted providers to work towards its adoption having due regard to affordability, market sufficiency and quality of commissioned care.’ I have no illusions that the financially challenging parts of the Charter – such as paying the real Living Wage and providing sick pay for care workers – will be implemented any time soon. But the endorsement in principle is welcome and I asked that the Council regularly monitor progress in implementing the charter – the Leader, Cllr Hart, suggested this could be done by the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee.

Correction – Southwestern Railway is cutting ALL stops at Clapham Junction on trains from Exeter St David. Protest!

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I misread the proposed new timetables – the reality is they’re even worse than I thought. Although some trains to Salisbury and Yeovil will still stop at Clapham Junction, ALL trains between Waterloo and Exeter St David, in both directions, will lose their Clapham Junction stops.

Please protest about this loss of service, which will add roughly half an hour to any journey which requires changing at Clapham Junction. You can comment here until 22nd December. Thanks to Cllr Heather Sanham for putting me right at Seaton Town Council last night!