Devolution to Local Government

Introduction

The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has been in negotiation with Council leaders in Hampshire since the middle of 2015 about how best to structure the devolved powers.¬† The leaders have agreed that they want to see a “Board of Leaders” model, but according to the BBC on 26 February 2016, Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to not only favour a “Metro Mayor” model. ¬†He wants to see areas based on Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) regions instead of the countywide model preferred by the council leaders.¬† Meaning that Hampshire will be divided into two regions, that of the M3 LEP and the Solent LEP.¬† The devolution will be conditional on major items such as suitable house building programme, but for the epithet “Southern Powerhouse” to have any significance, then substantial new powers must be devolved down from Westminster.

16 March 2016 was a day of great significance for south Hampshire local authorities, because during the Chancellor‚Äôs Budget speech, he announced that a new combined authorities infrastructure is being set in place. ¬†The likely title is the ‚ÄúSolent Combined Authorities‚ÄĚ. ¬†Heading up this new authority will be an elected Mayor, whose election is timed for May 2017. ¬†The Mayor will be responsible for Transport Infrastructure and Housing, but the essence of the initiative is that many central powers will be devolved down to us locally. ¬†However, there will be one very strange exception, education. ¬†This sector will if anything become more centrally controlled.

A week is a long time in politics!

It has been oft quoted that a week is a long time in politics and so it is that what was expected to happen in 2017, may not now take place.  If Hampshire County Council has its way, the Solent Combined Authorities model may already be about to be dropped.  Much the way of the academisation programme, tax credits and probably a 7 day working week for junior doctors.

County Council Leader’s vision for local government in Hampshire

Hampshire County Council has commissioned a report by Deloittes to examine the possible administrative options available to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight as an alternative to the Solent Combined Authorities.  They came up with seven variants, all based on unitary authorities.  Previously, it has been thought that the minimum size of electorate for which a unitary authority could feasibly operate would be 300,000 and any larger than 700,000 people would become unmanageable.  However, the report suggests that in modern society, the minimum size would be significantly larger than 300,000 and the maximum size would be infinitely higher if the unitary authority were to be split into local area committees.  It is stated that the national position is that the two tier model is unsustainable.  The report claims that evidence shows that the unitary model is more cost effective.

Of the 7 options, the preferred option, the one to effect the greatest cost saving is the County unitary model, with an immediate 91% council tax cut, saving £75 per household.  Whichever option is to be chosen, it would not be the council that would make the choice.  It would be put to public consultation.  A paper has been printed and made available to the public in preparation for a Hampshire County Council meeting on the 6 June.  It is suspected that the leaders of the 11 Hampshire District councils and 2 Unitaries may not agree with their roles being made obsolete and unless they take some ownership of the Deloitte report, they will likely resist the proposals on offer.  Also, it is not known what position Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is taking and if indeed, any attention will be taken of the Deloitte study.

If this idea were to be accepted by the public, it would be anticipated that it would not happen before 2019.  Although making such a large scale changes to the way the local administration is managed is invariably done behind closed doors, the precedent was set in the north of England around 2004, when the people were asked if they wanted an elected mayor model to which they firmly replied, no.

The County Council leader‚Äôs vision for Hampshire, is laid out in his public statement of the 13 May. ¬†Where he states that the Council will be asking the opinions of Hampshire MPs and other key stakeholders including all our Town and Parish Councils to enter a debate about how a radical shift in real localism can be created. ¬†He goes on to say ‚ÄúThe financial evidence we have, indicates a county unitary could save well over ¬£40 million per annum – every year, not just the 30 years promised in the Solent deal, so it should be good news for the Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as local taxpayers‚ÄĚ. ¬†It is for Hampshire residents to tell the Council what they want based on the real alternatives which are claimed to have a strong evidence base that will deliver more efficient local government with fewer layers of bureaucracy and consistently high quality services through economies of scale with decisions made at local area level. ¬†In a proper democratic process, there will be a special meeting of the Cabinet on 6 June at which these proposals will be considered and taken forward in a full public debate.

Summary of the council leader’s proposal

My interpretation from reading the report is that;-

  • A County-wide Unitary local authority simplifies public administration
  • Local voice still heard through system of local area committees
  • Less bureaucracy, means lower costs (Estimated at ¬£40m/annum or a ¬£75 reduction in council tax per capita)
  • It will be the people that decide via a referendum (More democratic than Government deciding)
  • Although the decision making process needs to be carried out relatively quickly, depending on how the people of Hampshire react to the proposal, it is unlikely to take place before 2019

References:

Hampshire County Council, Initial analysis of options for local government in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.  Executive Summary

Hampshire County Council, Initial analysis of options for local government in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.  Full report

Important Factors to Consider

While it is true that the current multi-tier system of administration is bureaucratic and unnecessarily costly, it does provide a level of democratic fairness.  In areas such as Eastleigh whose population is more centre ground and environmentally aware than other areas of Hampshire, the council has been able to achieve the highest recycling rates in the county and develop a model of inward investment in property with a portfolio of around £200m, punching way above the weight of peer councils.  A strategy that has permitted the council to maintain council tax increases to 0% or 1% below inflation for 13 consecutive years.  These are just two examples of the political differences between Eastleigh and non Liberal Democrat administered authorities.  Political differences run to the core of why people vote for particular political parties.

If the electoral system were to be changed to one of proportional representation based on the Single Transferable Vote, then the proposed Hampshire unitary council would not only be less costly to run, but would also be more democratically acceptable to its communities.

Devolution Discussions as of June 2016

From a report issued on 6 June 2016, it has been stated that Hampshire Council Leaders have an obligation to residents to ensure people’s views from the entire county are represented and to deliver the best possible services to all residents at the lowest achievable cost, and to spend taxpayers’ money wisely. ¬†District, unitary and town and parish councils will be invited to contribute to the consultation document before residents‚Äô views are sought. ¬†A Hampshire unitary would be no larger than the existing Hampshire county area, and would correspond more closely with the existing Police and Fire authority boundaries.

An agreement has been made with the Chief Executive of the Hampshire Association of Local Councils, the part town and parish councils will play in the consultation process.  As a result, all town and parish councils will be heavily involved in the consultation process and asked what services they would like to deliver in future.

The consultation would take place after the EU referendum on 23 June, and run for a period of eight weeks with findings presented to the County Council’s Cabinet around late September, and to the full County Council at a special meeting around early October.

Devolution Discussions as of March 2017

Probably as a result of the EU referendum and Government ministers being distracted with the difficult task of extricating ourselves from the European Union, everything has gone quite with respect to Hampshire’s devolution of powers from Whitehall.