I'm not going to go into the hugely complicated details of the whys and wherefores of how we ended up in such a ridiculous anti-democratic situation. It's easy to blame the parties in Exeter, the parties in Devon, the Boundary Committee, and the Secretary State who initiated this unwanted process. But I'm prepared to presume that all were trying to do the best as they saw it.
And all is not yet lost: John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, won't be taking a decision on what should happen for six weeks, allowing representations from all interested parties. It is also in doubt whether there is time for legislation to be passed before the General Election.
But I've followed the story closely, read through all the documentation, and I want to make three points about the process we've been through. (Section and page references are to the document "Advice to the Secretary of State on unitary local government in Devon", 7 December 2009, pdf available via this link)
1. Democracy should be the main concern
The function of local government is not just delivering services. Otherwise we could abolish councils altogether and have a team of civil servants dictating how much gets spent on which services and what policies are to be enacted.
The financial aspects of local government are therefore important, but so too are the democratic mechanisms by which those in power are held to account by those who are subject to that power.
So how are democratic ideals reflected in the criteria the Boundary Committee were given to evaluate proposals for changing local government in Exeter?
Proposals needed to...
- be affordableThe first and fifth criteria are not about democracy ("equity" was interpreted solely in terms of access to services).
- be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders
- provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership
- deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment
- deliver value for money and equity in public services
At first glance, the second, third and fourth criteria seem to be about democratic accountability. But actually they're not:
For the second criterion, the Boundary Committee interpreted "support by a broad cross-section" as finding instances of support amongst a variety of partners and stakeholders in the consultation process. They did not consider whether the proposals would result in ongoing popular support for whatever local government administration happens to wield power in the future. If, say, elections repeatedly returned Devon mega-council administrations with sharply differing policies to those favoured by the 125,000 inhabitants of Exeter, the Devon mega-council would be seen as lacking a democratic mandate in Exeter. But the Boundary Committee's interpretation of this criterion meant that this consideration was ignored.
For the third criterion, the Boundary Committee didn't see democracy as an integral part of "strong" and "effective" strategic leadership. Indeed, their assumption seems to have been that a substantial part of "strategic leadership" is a high-profile leader, rather than a council that builds wide consensus towards a clear, sound, agreed strategy. Meanwhile, their main concern about "accountability" seemed to be that having different councils responsible for different services tends to "blur" who is responsible for which service, rather than the more democratic concern that abolishing a city council decreases the extent to which the people of the city can call its representatives to account. Clarity of responsibility is important for democracy, but that's not the same as democracy.
For the fourth criterion, neighbourhood "empowerment" looks promising, but it is clear (section 2.18 onwards) that this is interpreted as "clarity of roles and responsibilities", good communication with residents, and "community forums" that "reflect community identities" to enable views to be heard. This ended up in a proposal (section 4.27) to create a "Community Board" for Exeter that would, inter alia, develop "vision", implement a community action plan, influence budget allocations, promote community cohesion, hold the Devon mega-council to account, shape local planning policy and act as a sounding board.
The Boundary Committee is vague on how such "Community Boards" would be appointed, despite describing them as "a well thought out approach to localisation" (p. 15). As far as it is concerned, the Devon mega-council is democratically elected, so it is up to that body to ensure that Community Boards are representative of the communities they cover. So, in essence, Exeter's Community Board would be a glorified sub-committee of the Devon mega-council, with no direct democratic mandate from the people of Exeter.
It would be truly unbelievable for the Boundary Committee to imagine that such a Community Board offers a better model of local democracy and empowerment than our current city council.
If democracy had been the main concern of this review, than the financial aspects would naturally have been a big consideration because the democratic mechanisms would need to be evaluated for cost-effectiveness. But by ignoring democracy, the Boundary Committee ended up focusing solely on the delivery of services.
So, in summary, democracy was not the main concern of this review of local government, and was consequently ignored by the Boundary Committee. The result was a proposal that constitutes a massive reduction in democratic representation and accountability.
2. The status quo should be an option
Two proposals were examined by the Committee:
- a county unitary authority, aka the Devon mega-council (i.e. all of Devon, except Plymouth and Torbay)
- a "two unitary pattern comprising Exeter & Exmouth and Rural Devon", aka the Greater Exeter proposal
The current setup is that Exeter has a city council that looks after the city's housing, planning, parking, environmental health, museums, libraries, parks, waste collection and so on. It seems fit-for-purpose, has one of the lowest council taxes in the country, and has a democratic mandate from the people of the city. Most importantly, the folk of Exeter can chuck the current buggers out if we don't like what they're doing in the city.
Meanwhile, we also have a Devon county council that is responsible for schools, social services, roads and a few other things that are typical of county councils. This council also seems fit-for-purpose, and is able to defer to Exeter when that makes sense. Despite being based in Exeter, though, it seems (to me) a slightly remote entity.
A sharper division between the two councils might arguably be helpful, and I personally would prefer more powers over Exeter moving from the county council to the city council; but in essence, there's no obvious problem to be solved here. Centralising all decision-making in a mega-council would in principle save money, but then of course so would centralising all decision-making in Westminster, and we don't do that.
So if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Indeed, the Boundary Committee notes (p. 13) that 61% of responses received during consultation were in favour of continuing with the current local government structures.
But the Boundary Committee was very clear (p. 12) that their remit was not to compare new proposals with the status quo, but simply to assess the capacity of the new proposals.
Conversely, many Exeter residents would feel disenfranchised if their elected City Council is abolished without a vote. And this sense of powerlessness would only grow when in the future there is some decision that the mega-council takes that goes against the interests of Exeter. There will be no democratic buy-in.
I predict that under a Devon mega-council, Exeter residents would grow resentful of their inability to decide their own affairs and those in rural Devon would grow resentful of what they would claim to be Exeter's preferential treatment.
3. The process should be democratic
I wrote above that the review was unwanted, and that there is no obvious problem to be solved here. I might of course be wrong about that. There might well be a groundswell of opinion in favour of change. The point is we just don't know. The 125,000 people in the city of Exeter have not been asked, and there are no plans to put the options to the vote.
Apparently, there was "strong opposition to removing Exeter from the rest of the county for local government purposes". How could the Boundary Committee know how strong the opposition is? It carried out no surveys. How strong was the opposition to abolishing Exeter's council? They don't know.
Instead, we have had two consultation exercises that have been managed by an unelected quango consisting of 8 people. It is not clear that submissions to the exercises have been either representative or properly taken into account. Huge sums have had to be wasted on lobbying by the respective councils, on responding to the process and on the legal challenges. This all comes out of our taxes, both council tax and general taxation.
The Committee admits (p. 12) that they did no systematic comparison of the proposals under consideration with the status quo. The balance of the submissions to the consultation exercise was in favour of the status quo. Indeed, many were strongly against the Devon mega-council idea. Yet the level of support for the different options was ignored. Where is the democracy in this?
Moreover, this method of evaluating proposals also does not encourage competing proposals to be compared systematically. This is a serious flaw.
The Appendix to the Committee's advice contains a breakdown of the preferences expressed by submissions made in the consultation exercises. Bearing in mind the caveats about lack of representativeness and quantitative intent, this data shows that 61% want the status quo; 15% want the Devon mega-council; and 11% want some form of Exeter unitary. Given that the consultation made clear that a simple Exeter unitary was not a proposal under consideration, it is possible that this option might have garnered more support than this.
Why am I labouring this point about the level of support for the different options? Well, precisely because of the reason the Committee ended up with its conclusions.
The Committee decided that the Devon mega-council proposal has the capacity to deliver the Secretary of State's five specified outcomes (the list beginning with "be affordable", above). And that the Greater Exeter proposal would be likely to deliver four out of the five. The one it wouldn't is "be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders".
Specifically, looking at the crucial page 29 of the advice document, it is clear (when the status quo is excluded as an option) that the bulk of submissions from Exeter - including the University, the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the residents associations - want some form of unitary status for Exeter. But many submissions from outside Exeter - typically county-level organisations such as the Devon & Cornwall Police Authority and the Devon Primary Care Trust - were strongly opposed to this option.
So, to try to make the point as clear as I can...
As far as the Committee can tell based on its limited data on public opinion:
- The status quo is the preferred option of the majority.
- If the status quo isn't possible, the people of Exeter would prefer a unitary Exeter to a Devon mega-council.
- If the status quo isn't possible, rural Devon would prefer a Devon mega-council to a unitary Exeter.
It is open to the Secretary of State to decide on any of the options, with or without modification. Or he can take no action.
I would humbly suggest to him on the basis of the three points above that the Boundary Committee have done what they have been asked to do, but that this exercise has shown that there is no groundswell of popular support for the abolition of Exeter City Council.