Devon County Council

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.

Health Scrutiny Chair should consider her position after rebuke and the County must act to restore confidence in scrutiny of NHS

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My press release:

6789739605_506f0ee322_oDevon County Council’s Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Chair, Councillor Sara Randall Johnson (right), should immediately consider her position following the stinging rebuke issued to her by the Council’s Standards Committee. The Council should also act to restore the credibility of Health Scrutiny, since its failure to fully scrutinise the removal community hospital beds in Honiton, Okehampton and Seaton has destroyed public confidence in its activities across a large swathe of Devon.

At its meeting on 29 August, minutes of which are published today, the Standards Committee agreed that while Cllr Randall Johnson had not broken the Members’ Code of Conduct, she should ‘be strongly reminded of the importance of the work of scrutiny committees – reinforcing the value of neutrality in scrutiny both generally and in calling the “health service” to account – and the need to be seen to be even handed and scrupulously fair, recognising that failure to do so may be perceived as a deliberate act.’

The call for a Scrutiny Chair to ‘be strongly reminded of the importance of the work’ of her committee, and of the value of neutrality and being seen to be even-handed and fair, is unprecedented and should lead Cllr Randall Johnson to immediately consider her position. There is no public confidence that she will lead the committee to carry out full and impartial scrutiny of NHS decision-making.

Effects on the Council’s reputation 

The Standards Committee also ‘accepts that the events of the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee meeting on 25 July 2017 may not reflect well on individual Members or upon the Council as a whole, and further recognises that the perception gained by persons present at the meeting or subsequently viewing the webcast is not that which would have been desired’.

This stark acknowledgement of the damage done to Devon County Council’s reputation also requires early action by the Council to reassure the public that the Committee will do its job properly in future and protect the NHS in Devon.

The Scrutiny Committee ignored the views of local communities and their representatives and has allowed the CCG to get away with damaging cuts. The Council must now consider how to restore people’s faith that it will protect all our community hospitals in the future. I shall ensure that this is discussed when the Council meets on 5th October.

CAN YOU COME TO COUNTY HALL ON MONDAY to support the campaign for Seaton & Honiton hospital beds?

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We will be asking the committee to use its power to refer the decision to close our hospital beds to the Secretary of State for Health. This is our best opportunity to halt the closure programme.

We will be meeting on the main steps of County Hall from 1 pm to protest against the closure decisions, together with people from Okehampton (whose beds are also threatened) and other parts of Devon. Tell your friends and bring placards!

The meeting starts at 2.15 and we want as many people as possible to be in the public gallery to support our 6 speakers in the public participation session at the beginning of the meeting. As a Councillor (but not a member of the committee), I will be speaking later when we reach the item.

Howard and Anne West are organising a bus to take people from Colyford and Seaton to the meeting. Please email annewest@lineone.net AS SOON AS POSSIBLE if you would like a seat on the bus (£9).

20170614_19363760 people packed Marshlands, Seaton, last night for the planning meeting which called this demonstration. Dr Mark Welland, Seaton GP and Chair of the Hospital League of Friends, addressed the meeting which was chaired by Jack Rowland, Mayor of Seaton.

Hospital beds fight shifts back to County Council

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The battle to keep in-patient beds in Seaton Hospital should now return to Devon County Council’s Health Scrutiny Committee, I argue in a statement issued to the press today.

The Council has the power to refer the decision of the NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to the Secretary of State for Health. In March, the Scrutiny Committee asked the CCG to answer 14 questions before the Council exercised this power. The CCG responded, but the answers will remain confidential until the June meeting of the new committee, whose members will be nominated at the Council’s Annual Meeting on May 25th.

I have now seen the CCG’s answers but I am not allowed to reveal them publicly, which I think is deplorable. However I can state that, particularly in relation to the decision about Seaton, the CCG’s case remains flimsy and threadbare. I shall be raising this matter as soon as the new committee meets and I urge other interested parties in the Axe Valley to join me in making representations. I have had a preliminary talk with Axminster’s new County Councillor, Ian Hall, and I hope we can make a cross-party case for the whole local community on this issue. I am also talking to Honiton campaigners.

Judicial review: fundraising insufficient

I am proposing this way forward after the urgent appeal for £20,000 for the first stage of a judicial review of the decision, the preparation of a ‘letter of complaint’ – which I made last Saturday following my election on Friday – failed to raise enough money to proceed. 

I was moved by the response in which about 70 donations have been made. Sadly, however, the total raised, while over £5,000, was still not sufficient to pay the solicitors to prepare the letter, for which they would have charged £16,800. It might have been possible to raise the balance after the letter was sent, but within three weeks the action itself, requiring a fighting fund of many tens of thousands, would also have had to be launched. In the light of this response, there seemed no prospect of raising the further money in the time available.

I therefore decided not to proceed with the action. I felt it was unfair to the donors to spend their money on something which could not be followed through. I have incurred some legal costs but most of the money will be returned, and I have written to those donors whose names I had (others will be contacted in due course after I have sorted things out with the League of Friends).

Case strengthened 

The appeal has had a positive effect, however, in that new evidence came to light which strengthens the case that the CCG acted wrongly in the way they made the Seaton decision. This will be used in representations to the County Council. I also urge voters to make the Seaton and Honiton hospital beds a priority with all candidates in the General Election, so that whoever is our MP makes the new Health Secretary aware of local anger about this issue.