Sunday, 24 July 2016


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.