Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unitary Exeter: The Statement to the House of Commons

A few words on the statement made by the Government to the House of Commons on the Unitary Exeter decision.

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, Rosie Winterton, explained that the Secretary of State, John Denham, had passed the decision on unitary proposals for Devon to her, because of his family connections with Devon.

Each proposal was assessed using the five declared criteria:
  • affordability
  • broad cross-section of support
  • strategic leadership
  • neighbourhood empowerment
  • value for money and equity in services.
In relation to the Unitary Devon proposal, the Boundary Committee's view had been that the proposal would be likely to meet all the criteria. Rosie Winterton disagreed with this view. She judged that there would not be a reasonable likelihood of this proposal achieving a broad cross-section of support or neighbourhood engagement. And indeed, when I read the Boundary Committee report in December, I came to exactly the same conclusion, while noting the narrow way in which the Boundary Committee had interpreted these criteria. However it would have been helpful for Winterton to be explicit about why exactly she disagreed with the Boundary Committee on these criteria.

In relation to the Unitary Exeter proposal, the Boundary Committee's view had been that the proposal would meet all the criteria apart from the "broad cross-section of support" criterion. Winterton disagreed with this view. Instead, she judged that the Unitary Exeter proposal would meet all the criteria apart from the "affordability" criterion. In that earlier post I pointed out that the Boundary Committee glossed over the fundamental problem that support in Exeter and support in the rest of Devon are very different things; and I am happy with Winterton's conclusion in relation to the support criterion. However, again, it would have been helpful for Winterton to say exactly why she disagreed with the Boundary Committee on this criterion. Moreover, not being an economist I was unable to assess the quality of the Boundary Committee's methodology and data in passing the Unitary Exeter proposal on affordability. So it would be valuable to know on what basis Winterton disagreed with this assessment.

Winterton was clear however about why she considered there to be compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that unitary proposals which do not meet all five criteria are not to be implemented:
"First, the Government's priorities today are, above all, for jobs and economic growth. Local government has an essential role to play in delivering these economic priorities, and this role is of a significance that could not be contemplated in 2006 when the criteria were developed. We believe, as has been made clear to us by the representations we have received, that a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich would each be a far more potent force for delivering positive economic outcomes both for the city and more widely than the status quo two-tier local government.

Secondly, with today's approach to developing public service delivery, as envisaged by our Command Paper-"Putting the Frontline First"-announced by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 7 December 2009, Official Report, column 1WS, including the Total Place approach, a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich could open the way for improvements to the quality of public services. Through innovative shared services and partnership arrangements the public services for the cities will be able to be tailored to the needs of the urban area while still being able to achieve the economies of scale that are possible under the countywide delivery of such services as adult social care and children's services."
This does indeed sound compelling, and expands on the explanation that John Denham gave to his Permanent Secretary, Peter Housden, for the ministers' approach to the decision. I accept that ministers have taken the decisions that they believe are "in the best interests of the people for the areas concerned."

However, what is being offered in Winterton's Written Statement is essentially an argument that could have been offered years ago without any of the intervening data collection, analysis, review, consultation lobbying, PR campaigns and legal processes. It is reasonable for an elected representative to make the judgment call that is required, but they need good evidence to help them; and the Boundary Committee simply did not provide that evidence. It is not at all clear from the review process whether there is in fact "genuine local appetite for unitary government in the cities of Exeter and Norwich". It is not at all clear whether the proposed local government structures "provide a robust framework for the future prosperity of those cities and surrounding county areas"; or that they "open the way to better and more efficient public services". These are noble aspirations, but we don't have sufficient evidence.

My view then is that the ministers have made the best of a bad decision-making process.

Future reviews

Given all the review effort of the last few years then, why don't we have the evidence we need? I've outlined some of the key flaws of the process in my December post. In essence, I believe the Boundary Committee didn't come up with the goods because of their brief, their lack of resources, and their interpretation of the criteria.

In my view, the local government review was flawed from the start. Instead, it should have been set up to:
  1. Have local democracy as its primary focus.
  2. Systematically compare the different models, including the status quo.
  3. Examine cost-effectiveness robustly, using data from a variety of councils.
  4. Conduct proper surveys to tease out local opinion.
  5. Be transparent in the selection or election of members of the Boundary Committee.
  6. Publish detailed reasons for ministerial decisions.
  7. Allow sufficient time before a General Election to allow proper scrutiny by a Select Committee and for parliamentary debate.
  8. Require a local referendum before the change is implemented.
The consequence of failing to follow any of these principles is that there is now antagonism between councils, substantial opposition from regional MPs, and an election promise from the Opposition to undo the changes if elected.

Nevertheless, at least the flawed process has not resulted in the complete loss of Exeter's City Council, an outcome that was looking rather probable in December. And for that I thank Rosie Winterton.