Heart of the South West

Labour joins Tories at Devon County Council to support joint ‘devolution’ with Somerset, against Independent, Lib Dem and Green opposition

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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’

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hotswlep-mapDevon 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. The Strategy says little about rural Devon, and needs to include the key recommendations of the South West Rural Productivity Commission.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. The Strategy needs to show how we will respond to automation and Artificial Intelligence.
    8. The Strategy needs to indicate clear performance indicators through which we will measure its success.
    9. The Strategy needs to align more explicitly with the Government’s new Industrial Strategy and ‘sector deals’ which may provide funding.
    10. 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.
    11. The Strategy needs to include more specific proposals for transport links, including rail and other public transport. [wording of this point to be confirmed]




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.