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COMMENT DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Devon devolution deal to create unaccountable local government layer for paltry £16 million payoff

Democratic deficit to increase as city and district councils lose control over housing and prosperity funding and transport policy powers moved out of reach, while county council plans to approve deal irrespective of public consultation outcome.

Devon county council Democratic deficit Accountability & transparency Public consultation

A devolution deal for Devon and Torbay that will reduce democratic accountability and is to be imposed on voters from above is currently out for consultation despite Devon County Council making clear it plans to approve the deal irrespective of the consultation outcome.

The deal will take away control of housing and prosperity funding from Devon’s district councils, which include Exeter City Council, and move transport policy powers out of reach by creating a new, unelected layer of local government.

The deal comes with just £16 million of new funding, which amounts to £16.77 for each of the 953,800 people who will live under the newly-created Devon & Torbay Combined County Authority.

However the government will retain control over both the funding and the new combined authority’s delivery plans, leading critics of the deal to point out that it is introducing greater centralisation, not devolution, and could be the first step towards a single Devon-wide authority.

Devon & Torbay devolution deal promotional presentation. Source: Devon County Council.

Devon County Council has been enthusiastically promoting the “ground-breaking” deal since the government announced it in January, claiming it has “historic” import with “huge potential” to “unleash” Devon and Torbay’s economy and “bring about significant changes across our whole area”.

A proposal paper presented to the county council’s cabinet suggests the deal will address Devon’s housing crisis, create numerous jobs, sort out its public transport, drive business investment, increase pay and productivity and give us all a stronger voice in Whitehall while also rescuing the region from climate change.

But the £16 million of new funding the combined authority area will get from the government in return for agreeing the deal amounts to less than one thousandth of its current economic output. And no detail is provided on how the new authority will “deliver the ambitions” the county council describes with so little cash spread across such a large geography that faces so many major challenges.

As the proposal paper admits, the Devon and Torbay area suffers from “nationally significant levels of poverty” with some places among the poorest 5% in the country. West Devon and Torbay have “the lowest and second-lowest workplace-based wages of any authority in the country” with “around 40% of all young people leaving the area due to a lack of available housing and lack of attractive employment opportunities”.

It also says that average house prices in the combined authority area have reached more than ten times average salaries, while the private rental sector has “collapsed” with stock levels “falling by around 50% between 2019 and 2021”. The worst-affected places have been “hollowed out by second home and holiday accommodation”.

It adds that the area’s productivity gap has widened over the past ten years to stand at just 70% of the national average, with a fifth of its working age population either too unwell to work or choosing not to, and low-paid jobs left unfilled from coast to coast.

Devon local authority boundaries map Devon local authority boundaries. Source: Devon County Council.

£8 million of the new funding is supposed to go to housing. This might provide 30 new homes, which would no doubt be welcomed by the 75 or so people who would live in them. The other £8 million is to be spent on business and skills projects, replacing functions previously performed under the failed Local Enterprise Partnerships arrangements.

The new combined authority would also take control of the Shared Prosperity Fund, which is worth £14.8 million over three years from 2025 and is currently administered by the area’s eight district and city councils, and would supplant their existing relationships with Homes England, taking control of the affordable housing agenda at local level.

It would become the area’s Local Transport Authority, taking over responsibility for area local transport plans, bus service improvement plans and local cycling and walking infrastructure plans from Devon County Council and Torbay Council, and it would become responsible for adult education provision too.

(Losing control of local transport was the deal-breaker for Plymouth City Council, which walked away from devolution discussions in November.)

None of the new or existing funding can be spent without prior government approval, and the government retains the right to step in if it sees fit. The deal small print includes the following subclause: “Any issues of concern with the subsequent delivery of this deal will be escalated to ministers and leaders to resolve.”

Devon & Torbay Combined County Authority governance structure diagram Devon & Torbay Combined County Authority governance structure. Only the “constituent” members vote and make decisions. Source: Devon County Council.

The new combined authority comes with an entirely undemocratic governance structure, despite county council protestations that it would be a “democratically accountable body”.

Its six voting members will be nominated, not elected, with Devon County Council and Torbay Council each getting three seats despite less than 15% of the area’s population living in Torbay, which has only 10,000 more residents than Exeter. The powers that these six will assume are extensive.

Four more non-voting members will also attend, two of whom are expected to represent Devon’s eight district councils, including Exeter City Council. Another two will be appointed by the voting six to represent business and skills interests.

The Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner will also have a seat. The incumbent used to be a Torbay councillor, further tilting combined authority composition in its favour.

Combined authority scrutiny and audit committees will be created, but the membership of both will ensure the new authority remains in the control of the voting member councils.

In what appears to be a sop to the district authorities, a “Team Devon” joint committee will be established alongside the combined authority, based on the existing, informal partnership of Devon local councils with the same name. This includes the two national parks and the Devon Association of Local Councils, to represent the county’s town and parish councils.

The joint committee will “have a voice” but no decision-making powers or voting rights. The county council says the combined authority may also establish advisory boards, also without decision-making powers.

The additional layer of local government that the Devon and Torbay Combined County Authority will create will require its own chief executive, finance director and legal advisor, as well as some form of secretariat to service its meetings. It will cost £1 million to set up, money that the government will provide on top of the £16 million housing and business development cash.

The new combined authority is also designed to expand its reach. As the county council says, it is expected to be “the first step in the process of further devolution” in which it could “gain greater responsibility” over time, although this too would be “subject to government agreement”.

Devon County Council Cabinet meeting on 2 February 2024 at County Hall Devon County Council Cabinet meeting on 2 February 2024 at County Hall

As Devon County Council officers admitted at last month’s County Hall cabinet meeting, the deal remains vague on a lot of important aspects of governance, decision-making and delivery.

It is silent on both future funding, which will apparently be determined in negotiations that would pit Devon against major mayoral authorities for government favour, and the possibility that it could be a precursor to local government restructuring, and even a single Devon-wide authority.

Conservative county council leader John Hart, the deal’s midwife, nevertheless claimed that all eight Devon districts were in favour of the new combined authority.

This is clearly not so. Liberal Democrat county councillor Martin Wrigley, who also leads Teignbridge District Council, said the deal would take away lower-tier authority involvement in important funding decisions and relationships, adding: “We hear we have a voice, but we have no say in this organisation”.

Caroline Leaver, who leads the Liberal Democrat opposition at County Hall and also sits on North Devon Council described the deal as a “centralisation of power” and the additional money it promised, while welcome, as “a drop in the ocean of what we need”.

Carol Whitton, who leads the Exeter Labour group at County Hall, said she couldn’t see how the three county council voting members on the new authority could represent the diversity of Devon’s rural areas, market towns, coastal populations and urban centres.

And Labour city council leader Phil Bialyk said, at last night’s city council meeting, that there was more to disagree with in the deal than there was to agree with.

A report to the meeting by city council chief executive, Bindu Arjoon, took aim at the “democratic deficit” the deal would create and the “disproportionate and inequitable” influence Torbay’s 139,000 residents would gain over the new authority.

It added that it was “imperative that Exeter’s democratically elected representatives have direct input into decisions on prioritisation and allocation of funding and resources”.

Devon & Torbay devolution deal approval in prospect on forward plan Devon & Torbay devolution deal approval in prospect. Source: Devon County Council

However the city council, alongside its district peers, has no say in the approval of the deal. It is limited to lobbying and submitting a response to a public consultation that is being held on the combined authority proposals, like everyone else.

And the county council made clear, last August, that it intends to approve the deal at its cabinet meeting on 22 April, then ratify its approval at a meeting of its full council a week later. Apparently regardless of the outcome of the public consultation.

This concludes at midnight on Sunday, with government approval expected in May and secondary legislation to create the new authority to follow in June. The Devon and Torbay Combined County Authority is then expected to come on stream sometime in the autumn.



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