Heart of the South West
An inauspicious start for new Scrutiny Committee for the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership
Who would have known? The previously unaccountable quango, the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership, which dispenses public money but whose board is made up mainly of businessmen, now has a scrutiny committee all of its own, recently established in some haste to meet newly imposed legal requirements. The first meeting took place five days ago, but little seems to have happened, judging from the minutes. There is currently no opportunity for public participation and no webcast.
The committee will have 17 members, with 13 Tories (11 confirmed – two representatives of Conservative-controlled district councils to be named), 3 Labour members (2 from Plymouth and 1 from Devon) and 1 Lib Dem from Somerset. Thus Independent and Green members have been entirely excluded, while there is only minimal opposition representation. The ruling Tories on the two county councils have used their majorities – obtained with less than 50 per cent of the votes in the 2017 election – to collar three quarters of the county seats, in addition to all those from the districts they control.
It’s worth mentioning that the Heart of the South West (geographic Devon and Somerset – but few local residents will recognise it under its marketing name) also has a Joint Committee of the Councils, with 19 members even more unevenly distributed by party (16 Tories, 2 Labour, 1 Lib Dem, no Independents or Greens).
Will all this bureaucracy give a new steer to the LEP, notorious so far for its bias towards the Hinckley new power station (it is even funding a hotel for officials of the foreign companies behind the project to stay in), its neglect of coastal and rural areas, and its fantastical plans for the South West to overtake London in productivity?
Labour joins Tories at Devon County Council to support joint ‘devolution’ with Somerset, against Independent, Lib Dem and Green opposition
Most Labour members joined the Conservative majority on Thursday in voting down my amendment for the County Council to revisit its controversial ‘devolution’ proposals to join Devon with Somerset in the so-called Heart of the South West, first in a formal Joint Committee and then (envisaged but not proposed at this stage) in a Combined Authority. I argued that the proposals for an extra layer of bureaucracy have no democratic consent – they were not even in the Conservatives’ Devon manifesto last May.
I argued that we were being asked to support ‘a regional economic strategy that doesn’t add up to a government which doesn’t know what it’s doing about devolution, and for this we’re prepared to enter a half-baked new constitutional arrangement which will probably have to be scrapped as soon as a more rational government devolution policy is devised.’
Six of Labour’s Exeter members followed the line of Exeter City Council which is joining the Tory-run County and district councils in supporting the current devolution proposals (one abstained). They believe that Exeter’s economy will gain from the (currently unknown) amount of money the devolution bid will gain from government (which of course will be giving back a small proportion of the money it is currently taking from services). I argued that the plan does not have a viable economic strategy behind it, and that rural, coastal and small-town Devon stands to gain virtually nothing from it.
Liberal Democrat and Green councillors joined Independents in voting for my amendment. The webcast will be available here.
As DCC is asked to approve a new layer of bureaucracy for ‘devolution’, its Scrutiny Committee says productivity strategy on which project is based is ‘unrealistic’
Devon County Council will be asked on Thursday to approve the setting up a ‘Joint Committee for the Heart of the South West’, which is the first step towards setting up a full Combined Authority of the Devon and Somerset county, unitary and district councils. The purpose is negotiate a ‘devolution’ deal with the Government to promote economic growth, under which some powers and limited funding (far less than the amounts being taken away by the Government from Council funding for services) will be made available.
This new layer of bureaucracy will be made up of two leading members of each council, so that its composition will be almost entirely Conservative. This is going ahead although most people in Devon and Somerset don’t even know they live in something called the ‘Heart of the South West’. The Devon-Somerset link-up (rather than with Cornwall or Dorset) is driven by the Hinkley C nuclear white elephant, the grossly expensive project for a new nuclear power station of unproven type, with huge UK public subsidies to companies owned by the French and Chinese states.
The ‘devolution’ bid will be based on a ‘productivity strategy’ drawn up by the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership, a quango dominated by business interests (some of them with Hinkley connections). However last Tuesday, DCC’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee approved the following comprehensive criticisms of the ‘strategy’ (which I proposed), branding its main aim ‘unrealistic’:
The Committee notes the work to develop a Joint Committee, but believes that the revisions to the Heart of the South West Productivity Strategy will be needed if a bid for devolved powers and funds is to be successful:
- The ambition to double the size of the economy in 18 years, involving an annual growth rate of 3.94%, is unrealistic given that the regional annual rate over the last 18 years has been 1.5% and the national growth rate, which has not exceeded 3% in a single year during that period, is now forecast to average less than 1.5% p.a. in the next five years.
- The very ambitious aim of moving from less-than-average to above-average productivity is not credible since the Strategy lacks the wide range of specific proposals needed to raise productivity across the board and contains little detail on how gaps in higher skills levels will be filled.
- The Strategy does not adequately address the obstacles to higher-than-average productivity in sectors with endemic low pay and casual working, like social care and hospitality, which are disproportionately represented in the local economy; by our older-than-average population; and by underemployment.
- The Strategy says little about rural Devon, and needs to include the key recommendations of the South West Rural Productivity Commission.
- The Strategy does not emphasise sufficiently the shortfall in broadband provision and the radical investment needed if we are not to fall further behind other regions.
- The Strategy does not provide details of the opportunities of Brexit which it mentions, nor does it take account of risks such as a decline in investment due to uncertainty; issues for firms exporting to Europe if the UK is not part of a customs union; and threats to the knowledge element of our economy due to our universities losing EU staff and research opportunities.
- The Strategy needs to show how we will respond to automation and Artificial Intelligence.
- The Strategy needs to indicate clear performance indicators through which we will measure its success.
- The Strategy needs to align more explicitly with the Government’s new Industrial Strategy and ‘sector deals’ which may provide funding.
- The Strategy needs to explain what kind of devolution will help us meet our aspirations and articulate clear, realistic selling-points and asks of Government.
- The Strategy needs to include more specific proposals for transport links, including rail and other public transport. [wording of this point to be confirmed]