Exeter regional democracy & governance

Notes to accompany the Exeter Observer key topic workshop on Exeter regional democracy & governance.

These notes are work in progress: please get in touch with any suggestions for additional content, including key documents.


Local, regional and national government in the British Isles has been in flux since long before Julius Caesar first arrived.

The historic counties established after the Norman conquest, mostly based on earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and shires, formed the basis of a pattern that had largely stabilised by the mid-sixteenth century and lasted until the Local Government Act of 1888, which established the recognisably modern two-tier county and borough council system.

The 1972 Local Government Act that replaced this with the metropolitan system introduced an era of incremental, often controversial and politically-motivated, reforms that have led to the UK becoming one of the most centralised democracies in the developed world.

While ancient boundaries such as rivers and watersheds still underly the lived experience of place, and much modern infrastructure still follows long-established routes along natural contours, the mechanisms by which power and wealth are garnered and distributed have become largely divorced from the land.

The decentralised Anglo-Saxon shires of Wessex, which essentially survive as ceremonial counties including Devon, Somerset and Dorset as they are today, were combined with the highly-centralised government established by William the Conqueror in Westminster and catalogued in the Domesday Book.

The Labour government of 1997-2010 had planned to introduce eight English regional assemblies to sit alongside the devolved governments it established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but only succeeded in introducing the London Assembly, with its directly elected Major.

Under the same government, nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were established, mainly for economic development purposes, in England, with corresponding bodies in the rest of the UK. While funded by several Whitehall departments to reflect their broad remit, they reported to the then Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

The South West RDA, which covered an area including Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and the West of England, was strongly criticised for profligacy, being unelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable, and for covering an artificially-imposed and unnatural region that was too large for it to oversee effectively. Its head office was in Exeter.

When the coalition government came to power in 2010 it announced the abolition of RDAs as part of its austerity agenda, inviting proposals from local authorities and business leaders for replacement bodies.

These Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were set up on a voluntary basis without any public funding, with a reduced remit to help determine local economic priorities and lead local economic growth and job creation.

In a race to bid for diminishing public finance, 59 proposals were made, resulting in the 38 LEPs that are now operating.

Some coincide with densely populated urban areas with significant economic roles and strong claims to public investment in established industries, while others represent largely rural areas with low population densities and productivity to match.

A £1.4bn Local Growth Fund was established in 2012 to allocate finance to LEPs on a competitive bid basis, requiring LEPs to draw up local growth plans as a basis for negotiation.

At the same time the management of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), comprising the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF), was realigned to follow LEP planning.

The Heart of the South West LEP was formed to cover rural Somerset and Devon, including the Plymouth and Torbay unitary authorities. It is geographically the largest LEP area despite not including Cornwall or the Isles of Scilly.

However it did not represent a cohesive, distinct economic development area.

A 2016 Royal Town Planning Institute analysis of South West LEPs “in relation to delivering economic growth and their engagement with strategic planning and sustainable development” found that they would function more effectively were they coincident with functional market areas and matching local government structures, which they were not.

Meanwhile other local government changes were taking place following the abolition of the RDAs. Greater Manchester was the first of a wave of nine new combined authorities created after 2010.

Following mostly unsuccessful city mayoral referendums in 2012 (Bristol being a notable exception), these combined authorities have emerged as a means to pursue additional powers and funding in the form of “city deals”.

Further devolution followed with the creation of directly elected mayors at combined authority level, again notably including the West of England combined authority, meaning Bristol has an elected mayor at both city and combined authority levels.

These mayoral combined authorities have become the focus of significant public investment and political attention, particularly in the context of the regional “Northern Powerhouse” and “Midlands Engine” branding that has emerged.

Other combined authorities proposals, with and without mayors, have been scrapped after failing to gain necessary approval from participating local councils.

Some “devolution deal” discussions are ostensibly ongoing, however none of these so far incomplete dialogues have centred on large post-industrial metropolitan areas like those that have previously succeeded, with the exception of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, with its concentration of knowledge-based industries.

National government

Local government

In 1974 local government across England (excluding London, which had been remodelled in 1965) was reorganised into two tiers of “principal authorities”: county councils and district (or borough) councils. Rural areas also had a third tier: parish or town councils.

The largest urban conurbations were reorganised into metropolitan counties and metropolitan districts (or boroughs), though the metropolitan tiers had different responsibilities from the non-metropolitan councils.

Typically, non-metropolitan county councils have responsibility for education, highways and transport, social care, waste disposal, minerals and waste planning.

District councils handle spatial planning, housing, public spaces, leisure facilities and waste collection.

The tidy 1974 pattern has since changed. The metropolitan counties were abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986, with their functions largely falling to the metropolitan districts.

This pattern was repeated on a piecemeal basis during the 1990s and 2000s as many non-metropolitan counties and districts sought to become “unitary” authorities, thus ending the split of roles between the two tiers.

A summary of the different types of council is available from MHCLG.

All local authorities are run by elected councillors. The electoral cycle varies, with some councils up for election as a whole every three or four years, and others (including Exeter) holding elections for one seat in each three-member ward in each of three years, with no elections every fourth year to avoid clashing with county council elections.

Councillors are paid allowances which vary between authorities and in line with their responsibilities.

Since 2000 it has been possible for local authorities to adopt “executive arrangements” in place of the traditional system under which all decisions were taken by committees of the council (although the law requires that planning and licensing functions continue to be exercised through committees).

Executive arrangements are where the leader of the largest political group appoints either an executive (Exeter) or cabinet (Devon) of councillors to take day to day decisions and drive forward initiatives.

Full council meetings are then largely rubber stamps, though they may have a more dynamic role in authorities where no single political party has overall control.

All councillors are required to adhere to a code of conduct adopted by the authority, as well as the Nolan principles of public life, which apply to everyone who holds public office, including local authority officers.

Complaints that a councillor has breached the local authority’s code of conduct can be made to the council’s monitoring officer, who is usually the senior lawyer. In serious cases the complaint can be taken to a hearing of the council’s standards committee.

Councillors are supported by the local authority’s officers, who are unelected employees of the council, though perspectives vary as to whether councillors or officers run particular local authorities.

Local government finance is complex and opaque. Central government has been reducing direct revenue support to councils, replacing it with a variety of measures including retention of business rates, community infrastructure levy, new homes bonus and bidding into central funding schemes (see below).

The Local Government Association is the trade union for local authorities, and a source of useful briefings and reports on a wide range of relevant topics.

The Local Government Information Unit is a local government membership body and thinktank that also publishes a range of relevant briefings and reports.

Sub-national regional governance

The arrival of the coalition government in 2010 put an end to any interest in further change to local government structures or several years: plans for Exeter and Suffolk to become unitary councils were cancelled on day one.

Instead, central government encouraged or mandated the development of “partnerships” as a means both of overcoming local government fragmentation and of minimising the government funding stream to any one local authority.

Misleadingly, this process was called “devolution”, the idea being that if organisations banded together and put forward convincing spending plans, Whitehall would “devolve” budgets to them.

The most significant, so far, of the sub-national bodies are local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). LEPs are a key channel for targeted government money. Although LEPs include some councillors on their boards the majority of members are not elected by anyone despite their responsibility for channelling public funds.

The Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (HotSW LEP) was established in 2013 and covers Devon, Somerset, Torbay and Plymouth (but notably not Cornwall, which wanted to go it alone).

It describes itself as a “thought leader influencing economic development”, but its real role is to attract investment from government and the private sector.

Historically its environmental credentials have been limited but its new Local Industrial Strategy – Whitehall approval for which has been delayed for several months – purports to promise clean and inclusive growth. The LEP champions, among other projects, the new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point.

At the beginning of 2020, the Great South West partnership (GSW) emerged from the previously unsuccessful #BacktheSouthWest initiative, bringing together the LEPs covering Cornwall, Dorset and HotSW. Local authorities, universities and business leaders are also involved.

Whether the GSW will succeed in winning government funding for regional projects where the LEPs have failed, or will go the way of previous PR exercises (or leaked initiatives such as the “Golden Triangle” of Exeter, Plymouth and Torbay), remains to be seen.

However there is evidence that the LEPs may no longer be sub-national flavour of the month in Whitehall. Larger groupings of councils, LEPs, universities and businesses are coming together to make themselves even more appealing as recipients of government money.

Sub-national transport bodies are also in vogue. Some, such as Transport for the North, have been given statutory status by government.

Others, including our own Peninsula Transport, which covers all three South West peninsula counties, remain in shadow form, not having yet sought approval from central government to take on full decision-making powers.

Peninsula Transport appears to have taken over the work previously done by the HotSW Local Transport Board, an offshoot of the LEP (see Exeter regional transport and mobility key topic workshop notes).

Meanwhile, in some former metropolitan counties and other parts of the country combined authorities are playing an increasingly important role in planning and decision-making. Unlike the other sub-national bodies, combined authorities comprise elected councillors nominated by constituent councils, plus in most cases a directly elected mayor.


Devon County Council covers the historic county of Devon, except for Torbay and Plymouth which are both unitary authorities. The populations are (2018 mid-year estimates):

Exeter is the third largest of Devon’s eight districts: East Devon (EDDC) (144,000) and Teignbridge (TDC) (133,000) have greater populations, both of which are adjacent to Exeter. Mid Devon District Council (MDDC) is the third district adjacent to Exeter.

The four districts put together are sometimes known as Greater Exeter, although other working definitions of what constitutes this area compete for relevance in policy-making, including Exeter’s Travel to Work Area (TTWA), Functional Economic Market Area (FEMA) and Strategic Housing Market Area (SHMA).

The same four districts were previously also responsible for the Exeter & Heart of Devon shared economic strategy 2017-2020.

Devon County Council has been controlled by the Conservatives since 2009. It was previously controlled by the Liberal Democrats from 1989 to 2009, apart from 2001-5 when an all-party administration was in charge.

Since 2009 the Conservatives have increased their majority and now hold 41 out of 60 seats, reflecting the prosperous and rural nature of much of the county. The Electoral Reform Society says such “one-party councils” are 50% more at risk of corruption than politically-competitive councils and more likely to waste public money because of insufficient scrutiny of procurement processes.

Devon has seven Labour county councillors, all of whom were elected by Exeter divisions (which is the county-level term for ward). Elections for the whole of Devon County Council are held every four years, in the gap created by Exeter City Council electing by thirds (see above). The next county election is due in May 2021.

Like Exeter City Council, Devon County Council operates executive arrangements with a cabinet of nine including the leader, John Hart, and Exeter county councillor Andrew Leadbetter (who is also an Exeter city councillor in Topsham ward).

The [county council’s website]((https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/) contains much information about the council itself, its spending, facts and figures, mapping and services. It is responsible for schools (other than academies), social care provision, transport and highways (including traffic regulations and on-street parking), waste disposal, libraries, flood risk management, and leads on the local nature partnership.

The council declared a climate emergency in May 2019. It set up a series of mechanisms and groups all reporting to its Climate Emergency Response Group.


Exeter is run by two local authorities in the two-tier system: Devon County Council and Exeter City Council. Despite its name, the latter is legally a district council. There are no town or parish councils in Exeter.

Exeter City Council has been consistently Labour-controlled since 2011, the party having previously been out of power after 2005. Labour’s voting support has begun to slide with losses in three city centre wards in May 2019, to the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and an Independent. The Labour vote also fell in a county council by-election in October 2019.

Labour still hold 29 of the 39 seats on the city council, meaning it will reach the Electoral Reform Society’s threshold for a one-party council next year unless the May 2020 elections produce dramatic results.

Currently six Conservatives form the official opposition and the main challenge is provided by a Progressive Group of four councillors (two Lib Dems, one Green, one Independent).

The city council operates with an executive of ten including its leader, Phil Bialyk who took over in May 2019. One of his early decisions was to change the council’s constitution to reduce the scope for scrutiny of its actions.

The council’s key responsibilities are housing and homelessness, public spaces, leisure facilities, off-road public car-parking, air quality, taxi and premises licensing, community grants, waste collection and spatial planning (see Exeter regional planning and place key topic workshop notes).

It is also a substantial landowner in the city, and is the harbour authority for the Exe estuary from the city centre to one mile off the river mouth. More information is available on the council’s website.

The council declared a climate emergency in July 2019 and has entrusted Exeter City Futures with coordinating an action plan to reach net zero by 2030.

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