Sunday, 24 July 2016

Devolution

Among the many public consultations happening at the moment around Cambridgeshire is one on Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Devolution. This would bring together Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough and Cambridge City Councils, and Fenland, South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire District Councils, together with the Local Enterprise Partnership, under a Combined Authority chaired by a directly elected Mayor.

This Combined Authority would be responsible for transport infrastructure, extra housing funding, extra education and adult skills funding, and programs to improve skills and employment in the region.

The consultation can be accessed here, and an overview of the devolution deal is here.

Along with this deal comes an extra pot of money for new council houses in Cambridge - something that is really, really needed. There is a chronic shortage of housing in Cambridgeshire, and the money (for around 500 new houses) will really help. But it won't solve the problem - only a regular, consistent program from central government to build thousands and thousands of new houses will. The housing money will help alleviate the pressure in the short term, but the devolution deal is forever more.

There are some significant problems with the proposal itself:
  • Peterborough City Council is a unitary authority, not covered by Cambridgeshire County Council. This means that, on the Combined Authority, the residents of Peterborough will only get represented by 1 vote, where everyone else will get 2 (from the County Council, and from their District or City Council)
  • Once the Mayor is elected, he or she has got a lot of power with little oversight. The Mayor has a casting vote, and in some situations a 2/3 majority is needed to out-vote the Mayor. The Authority will appoint a Cabinet, but that only has an advisory role. There is a Overview & Scrutiny Committee, also appointed by the Authority, but that has no actual power to overturn or stop decisions made by the Authority. And an Audit Committee will oversee financial spending, but again, can only make recommendations. With regards to public consultations, the Government only 'expects the Combined Authority to monitor and evaluate their Deal', and there is no requirement to consult on any proposals or changes.
  • This is billed as 'Devolution', but in fact it is taking several powers from the County Council and Peterborough City Council, including education and skills, and transport provision.
  • The new Authority will be paid for by the constituent councils. The County Council in particular is critically short of money, and this is an extra expense it, and the taxpayers, could do without.
  • The Mayor and Combined Authority is in addition to the existing Councils. There's already confusion in Cambridge about which council deals with which function, imagine the confusion with the new Mayor and Authority added on top, as well as the City Deal!
But my main issue with devolution is the principle of the Mayor. A single person covering the entire area - trying to unite areas as different as Cambridge City (74% Remain) and Fenland (71% Leave).

Now, while Council meetings can sometimes be tedious and a bit dull, debate amongst councillors who each represent a small area, and who each have their own priorities and opinions, is the setup most likely to achieve a result that everyone is happy with, or at least can tolerate. Especially on a council with no overall control, like Cambridgeshire, compromise is essential to getting anything done.

But if there's just a single person taking responsibility, there is no debate and no compromise. You do not have a named, contactable person who represents you and your area, who you can lobby to get something changed, and will act in the best interests of your community. You get a single person who will just do what they see best, and an Authority, with little oversight, who have to work very hard to vote the Mayor down. That is not democracy.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Politics matters

So, the EU referendum has happened, and the future of the UK is now the most uncertain it has ever been in the past 70 years. This referendum has shown many things, not least the deep and bitter divisions that exist across Britain. But, with everything else, it does show one thing.

Politics matters.

Now, because of politics, the pound is at the lowest it has been for the past 30 years. Because of politics, businesses have lost contracts and people will lose their jobs. Because of politics, people who have lived in this country all their lives are scared to go out their own front door. Politics has long been derided as the purvue of a few rich posh boys from Eton, but that is because, collectively, we choose it to be so. Politics, both national and local, has always mattered, but it has been too easily dismissed as irrelevant.

Now, after the referendum, with the vacuum of effective leadership and opposition in Parliament, over the next few weeks and months, the British political landscape is being rewritten. The old rules may no longer apply. When things have stabilised, it could end up much better than it was. Or, it could be much worse.

One thing is certain though, we only get out of politics what we are willing to put into it. If we choose to ignore it, then we end up with politics that only represents those who do put something into it.

Only by taking part in it will we end up with a political system that works for us, not against us, and now is the chance to get involved and make a difference. In Cambridge, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and Conservatives all have active local parties that are involved in local issues and are trying to make a difference in our city. All are open to new volunteers - pick the one that most closely matches your beliefs and ideals, and join. If you don't think any of them match your views, get involved as an independent - publicise local issues and meetings, and try and improve your community.

After all, if you don't, who will?