Thursday 14 January 2016

Explaining devolution .......... an evening with Anne Western

Councilor Anne Western, the leader of Derbyshire County Council, was in Belper last night ......... sharing with the Labour Party Belper & Duffield branch meeting her thoughts on the proposed devolution of national government powers to beefed up regional bodies. With the publication of the North Midlands Devolution Agreement last week we now know what the "deal" looks like if we go ahead with the merger of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Derby and Nottingham cities:

or you can read a condensed summary here: 

Anne Western
It is fair to say that there was a palpable air of scepticism in the meeting room last night before Anne spoke but as time went on the mood seemed to change. This was in part due to her very interesting analysis of the process that has resulted in the devolution agreement (this January 2016 version is number 22) but also it was the way that she spoke. Here was the senior Derbyshire councilor speaking with passion, conviction and honesty about the future of our county and region. The question and answer session that followed was the high spot because Anne responded to the intelligent debate by taking us into her confidence .......... no tub thumping politics .......... no patronising remarks ............ we were able to understand the reasons behind the thinking on devolution, the funding opportunities, the devolved responsibilities leading to safeguarding social care, transport, housing and employment (amongst many others). The main elements common to all the questions from the floor were, where does the money come from to pay for all this? ----- how can we trust a Tory government? ...... most notably Osborne ---- and, why do we need a Mayor?

It would pay you to read at least one of the documents that I have linked to above as I do not propose to rehash the main points here. What I will do is report Anne's comments on the process and why we are where we are. She said:

  • Back in 2010 there was a lack of cohesion between the various district councils that make up Derbyshire and there was in consequence a sometimes factious relationship with the county council (DCC).
  • With the DCC becoming a Labour administration in 2013 it was deemed to be crucial that these relationships must improve so an effort was made to heal rifts, some of which were very deep .......... to the point that some district councils were actively pursuing an alignment with other authorities outside Derbyshire.
  • 2013 also saw an initiative by Ed Miliband who set up a Local Government Innovation Task Force: link to the relevant Local Government Association website page here and participation in this showed that working towards a combined Derbyshire Authority would be most advantageous for the delivery of integrated services and development of funding opportunities.
  • It was then realised that Derbyshire folk could share similar benefits to those being offered to Nottingham City through their devolution consultation with central government if a unified authority that encompassed both Derby and Nottingham cities plus both counties and their constituent district councils (the North Midlands as defined in the devolution agreement proposal) was pursued.
  • Consultations, meetings, proposals and counter proposals then continued through to late 2015 at which point there seemed to be a lull in the enthusiasm of central government for devolution probably caused by the workload resulting from amendments tabled to the Localism Act just then going through parliament. These amendments now empower district councils to choose with which regional authority they will align (something this blogger is profoundly worried about as this could lead to the redefinition of political boundaries by the back door).
  • The North Midlands alliance (if that is what I can call them) believe that they have reached a point in the devolution negotiations where a commitment must be made by central government. They have therefore published their devolution agreement document to concentrate minds and to open up the debate for public scrutiny.
If anyone present at the meeting last night (including of course Anne herself) feels that this account is in any way inaccurate then please make a comment.

I have to say that there are still many elements of the proposed merger in this North Midlands devolved format that causes me some disquiet. Principally I am worried about social care because of the differences of approach between the two counties. I much prefer the Derbyshire approach, best typified by the efforts to retain care homes for the elderly as a council provision. The Tory plan was to close all but 4 homes and then to eventually sell these off. The Labour controlled DCC plans to retain 18 homes. Nottinghamshire has retained (I believe) only 3 homes as a council provision.

I was also concerned about the reliance on franchising of buses (as defined in the North Midlands document) but Anne's answer on this was very encouraging and went some way to alleviating this commentator's fears. That said I still feel unease about central government funding being devolved without a robust mechanism, free from Tory interference that will safeguard existing bus services and routes, not least for remote villages and the disadvantaged in our society. Anne's response to these concerns showed that a lot of thought has gone into this as she stressed that the intention of franchising was to bundle sparsely used with the more populous routes, in effect a return (of sorts) to the methodology prior to bus de-regulation in the 1980's under the Thatcher government. I will return to this theme in another post but as a retired transport professional I can see both benefits for passengers and opportunities for existing bus companies. Having had contact with the council officers in Matlock, charged with maintaining public transport I feel sure that they must have had preliminary talks with local bus companies about this very subject. You do not promote such an idea out of the blue.

In conclusion

Two quotes from Anne stood out for me:

"I have to do the best I can for Derbyshire"

and, speaking about Labour:

"The parliamentary party needs to listen ------- and that's what is happening".

(She added to this by sharing with us that Labour leaders of local and regional governments had been invited to spend some time with John McDonnell so that he could better understand their concerns and ideas).

Some background reading

The underlying motivation for devolution is of course the Tory government cuts in council funding and a good summary of this is contained in a paper produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)
which can be found here: Central cuts, local decision-making: changes in local government spending and revenues in England, 2009-10 to 2014-15. If you have no time to follow this link the following paragraph lifter from the report sums it up well:

  • Local authorities have had to cut spending in the face of falls in their main sources of revenue. Grants from central government to local government (excluding housing benefit grant and those specifically for education, public health, police, and fire and rescue services and the housing benefit grant) have been cut by 36.3% overall (and by 38.7% per person) in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. Total council tax revenues have grown slightly in real terms over this period (3.2%), although this still represents a decline of 0.7% per person. Taking grants and council tax revenues together, local authorities’ total revenues have fallen by 19.9% overall (or 22.9% per person) in real terms. Council tax revenues funded just over half of local government spending in 2014–15, up from 41% in 2009–10.

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