When the music stops, your local council leader will be here to tell you a story 
First, there was “devolution” for the Heart of the South West, which wasn’t devolution at all because it would have sucked powers upwards from localities to a vast “combined authority” covering all of Devon and Somerset, including Plymouth and Torbay .
Then came the idea for a Greater Exeter Growth and Development Board (the GEGDB), which would be a joint strategic authority made up of Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge Councils . Joint authorities are in practice run by their officers, not councillors, because the officers negotiate a common acceptable position on a given issue and then serve it up the councillors as the only available option that the four councils will agree on.
Finally (or perhaps not), proposals for a “South Devon” unitary council leaked out last week. This would be an all-purpose council covering East Devon, Exeter, Teignbridge, Torbay and Plymouth and, possibly, South Hams (sorry, Mid Devon, you’re out), discharging all existing district council functions plus those of Devon County Council within the new unitary area. Such evidence is there is suggests the prime movers appear to be Exeter and Plymouth, if only because they refused to back further moves to support the “devolution” proposals.
The Exeter Green Party has written to the leader of Exeter City Council asking the following questions:
- What mandate does the City Council have from the residents it serves to:
(a) attempt to reorganise local government decision-making structures?
(b) propose arrangements which would suck key decisions upwards from the elected representatives
of the people of Exeter to a new superior authority – the GEGDB – which would not be directly elected?
(c) propose a strategic authority – the GEGDB – which on the evidence of the 8 November paper would focus solely on economic growth to the exclusion of social and environmental considerations?
- When does the City Council plan to publicise its thinking and actively consult residents and businesses on whether they actually want new local government arrangements and, if so, on the form they should take and how any new body might be fully accountable to local people?
It seems clear that the option favoured by Exeter and Plymouth is the South Devon unitary authority. Central government is believed to be offering £1 billion if the unitary is established, complete with an elected mayor. We don’t know what the money would be targeted at – improving public services, infrastructure, or grants to businesses? But a bribe’s a bribe.
A directly elected authority – which is what the unitary would be – is certainly preferable in democratic terms to the other options. But it would be a huge area, currently represented by 237 councillors elected by 105 wards (and that’s without South Hams). So a workable sized council will require a massive cull of elected members (no wonder the leaderships have been playing their cards close to their chests), leading to a weakening of the links between people and their councillors. On present ward boundaries, based on the most recent election results, 123 of the councillors would be Tories – a small majority, which gives pause for thought as to why Labour-run Exeter is so keen on the idea? Of course the new council could be a pathfinder, to be elected by proportional representation, which would change the political balance considerably. Look it’s a pig up there.
Many, many more questions. And meanwhile energy is being diverted away from service improvements into a potentially massive reorganisation. It still feels like the “old politics”. For the time being, we have to await the answers to the Green Party’s highly pertinent questions.
 You have to have been an aficionado of BBC Radio Children’s Hour in the 1950s to understand the reference!
 See my post https://petercleasby.com/2016/09/30/devolution-is-not-control/
 The proposals adopted by Exeter City Council’s Executive are at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/g4903/Public%20reports%20pack%2008th-Nov-2016%2017.30%20Executive.pdf?T=10, page 73.