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Devolution Consultation Launches

July 3rd 2016

a doughnut

Devolution: probably not as tasty as this doughnut

On 27th June local councils in Lincolnshire launched a public consultation on the devolution plan which was drafted recently. Ten councils are looking at forming a Greater Lincolnshire authority to manage devolved powers worth, initially, 15 million. The councils involved are East Lindsey, West Lindsey, Boston, City of Lincoln, South Holland, North Kesteven, South Kesteven, Lincolnshire County Council, North East Lincolnshire Council, and North Lincolnshire Council.

What is proposed is an authority with an elected mayor, which would have no impact on the governance or structures of the councils that make it up, and little impact on their funding. So the district and county councils or unitary authorities would continue to exist and do the things that they normally do, and the Greater Lincolnshire authority would sit above this and separate, and be responsible for budgets dealing with areas such as an integrated transport plan, water management, prisons, higher education, and more. I'm not going to list every topic that's on the table because it's in the draft document, and it's hard to summarise everything without missing out important points. There's a lot on the table.

15 million isn't a lot of money when you divide it up across Lincolnshire. Averaging 1.5m per authority, compared with the current cuts of 6m over four years for East Lindsey alone it barely makes a dent in the austerity-driven cuts local councils are currently suffering under the Tories. It's also worth bearing in mind that this isn't new money. It's a reorganisation of money that would otherwise have been allocated by Whitehall, so that the decisions on how to spend it are in theory taken at a local level.

However, this devolution deal may well be the thin end of the wedge. A second devolution deal for Greater Lincolnshire is already being planned. Greater Manchester is on its fourth devolution deal. So although the initial deal is relatively tiny, it could be the start of something much more significant in terms of public spending.

Oversimplified questions

The consultation asks seven questions, and then adds a section for comments. In my view some of the questions are inadequate. Question 4 is all about whether the roles of PCC and elected mayor should be combined, which is somewhat premature since it's not up for discussion for the time being simply because the boundaries for the PCC role in Lincolnshire don't coincide with the Greater Lincolnshire ones. It may come up later, but only if this initial deal is signed. It would more apt to ask whether the role of PCC is worth retaining at all, or if it's just another sinecure.

Next the consultation asks three very leading questions: how much you agree with whether "we should continue to pursue these extra powers and funding for the Greater Lincolnshire area"; whether "the 10 councils should be looking to work together to prioritise and deliver these activities (economic growth, infrastructure and housing) across the Greater Lincolnshire area?"; and whether "we should be pursuing further funding (in addition to that within the proposed Devolution Agreement) for economic growth, infrastructure and housing, as a priority for Greater Lincolnshire."

So who is going to turn down more money for the region, or greater co-operation? That would be crazy, right? But it isn't what the consultation should be asking, and if you look closely it isn't precisely what the questions are asking anyhow. The latter one is more specific about whether you want these three priorities, in this form, for this geographic area, rather than just more money and powers in general.

What the consultation hasn't dared to ask is this more direct question:

Do you agree with the devolution plan as set out in the draft document?

Other apt questions include whether people want a fourth layer of local government, and why these powers can't simply be devolved to a county or unitary council level, where systems already exist for administration and democratic oversight? The devolution document, as it stands, will establish a very autocratic system in which the mayor holds a great deal of power.

Is it all moot?

The EU referendum has changed a great deal, and the country has effectively voted to cut one layer of government. Devolution is George Osborne's pet project, and the chancellor has recently abandoned his target for a surplus on the budget deficit by the end of 2020. With the resignation of David Cameron it's not clear whether Osborne will continue to be chancellor, and if so what the effect will be on the devolution agenda. So is this consultation moot?

It's hard to tell what will happen with devolution (or the country), but I don't think that's a good reason to ignore this issue, because it might well lay the foundation for huge future changes in local government.

Devolution as a concept isn't a good or a bad thing. It's all in the execution and the detail. Devolution doesn't necessarily mean decentralisation, and it could be a means of shifting the blame for further swingeing cuts to local government. Yet plurality and combined decision-making can drive savings and increase a region's collective clout. Whether devolution is worth having rests on the detail of the proposals.

It's unfortunate that the consultation has launched when the country is distracted by political volatility, and that it will continue when many people are going on holiday. I for one am very keen to know what people think about the proposals.

The consultation will run until 8th August 2016.


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