Last Friday Devon County Council announced: 'The Government has confirmed plans to finalise a ground-breaking Devolution Deal with Devon and Torbay’ and 'will introduce secondary legislation to create a Combined County Authority (CCA) for the area.’
'The CCA’, we are told, 'will comprise councillors representing the councils of Devon and Torbay including District Councils. It will be a democratically accountable decision-making body responsible for key economic functions including transport, skills and business support. The CCA will include representatives from business and education to provide a strong voice for these sectors.’
For those who don’t know, a Combined County Authority is a new and additional layer of local government, introduced as part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act.
According to the Act the new Authority will be able to take over responsibility for activities currently carried out by our district Council, and for the 'function to be exercisable by the CCA instead of by the county council or unitary district council.’ In other words functions that are currently the responsibility of South Hams District Council, such as planning, could be taken over by the new Authority, removing local oversight and accountability to somewhere even further away from the communities most affected.
And, were planning to be one of those functions, other complications could arise. Currently our Joint Local Plan is drawn up in conjunction with Plymouth City Council and West Devon to satisfy the development needs and objectives of the three Authorities. However Plymouth have declined the opportunity to be part of the new CCA, with Plymouth council leader Tudor Evans being quoted by the BBC as branding the deal ‘unreasonable and unrealistic’. Instead membership of the new Authority will include Torbay and, presumably, both East and North Devon. The development needs and objectives of those areas, such as any need for neighbouring Torbay to find further room for expansion, could have ramifications for our existing Local Plan Policies.
The Act also makes provision for the Constitutional arrangements of the new Authority and the way in which it is to be democratically accountable. The members themselves, including those from business and education, will be able to decide 'the voting powers of members of the CCA (including provision for different weight to be given to the vote of different descriptions of member)’ while the Act also permits 'the disapplication of section 15 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (duty to allocate seats to political groups) in relation to an executive of the CCA or a committee of such an executive’, so decisions could well not be politically representative of those living within the boundaries of the new Authority.
Fortunately one eventuality is certain. The new Authority will come as an additional cost to residents living within its boundaries. As the Act makes clear: 'The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the costs of a CCA to be met by its constituent councils, and about the basis on which the amount payable by each constituent council is to be determined’. Amongst those costs will be 'the remuneration of, and pensions or allowances payable to or in respect of, any member of the CCA’.
So the benefits to those such as Devon County Council leader Councillor John Hart, Torbay Council leader David Thomas and other possible members of the new Authority might be thought clear. But what are the supposed benefits to the those of us who are going to have to pay the bills?
We are told the government is to make available 'new capital funding to support local priorities, a reference to Devon and Torbay councils’ plans to expand the green economy’, aiming to 'accelerate Devon and Torbay’s transition to a net-zero economy and capitalise on expertise in environmental science and technologies, with a focus on new green jobs, homes, skills, and business growth, seeking to attract additional private sector investment into these areas.’
Negotiations are also continuing to obtain 'greater local control and resources to tackle key local challenges such as the need for more affordable housing and improved public transport.’
Objectives with which few are likely to disagree. However, again according to the BBC, the government only intends to fund the new Authority with £16 million of taxpayers’ money. Not a sum that goes very far these days. But crucially, as to how much we as residents will have to pay for the privilege is still unknown. Nor do we fully know for which functions the new Authority will take responsibility, other than some 'key economic functions including transport, skills and business support’.
What we do know is that ‘subject to Government confirmation of a Deal in principle, the Cabinets of the County Council and Torbay Council will be asked to launch public consultation on the setting up of a proposed CCA, with a final decision coming before their respective Councils in March 2024.'
This proposed timetable provides remarkably little time for residents to fully understand the workings, benefits and costs of the new Authority, nor the ways in which it can be held to account and to whom it is ultimately responsible. In addition, anything we are told now might not necessarily hold true in 18 months time. According to The Guardian Sir Keir Starmer has said 'combined authorities would get more control over housing and planning, skills, energy and transport of the kind currently held by London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester’ – control that would be lost to our directly elected local representatives and instead be given to the new Authority, where we could inevitably be outvoted by the other members.
There is already considerable disquiet as a consequence of the way the South Hams became part of the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport, coupled with the subsequent lack of transparency and accountability that has ensued. To be similarly crowbarred in to this new Authority, following a very brief consultation and without being able to vote on the matter, will be unacceptable.
Quite simply, any decision should be postponed until after the forthcoming general election. Residents need to know precisely what will and won’t be on offer from whoever is then in government, what it will cost, and what that will mean for the South Hams. Only then should the decision be taken by residents in a referendum. And not by councillors who currently have no mandate to change who governs us locally.