The KCC Council cabinet met on 29 June and devolution for Kent was item 9 on the Agenda. Before we deconstruct this proposal, we should be clear on what we mean by ‘Devolution’. It can have two meanings:
- the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to local or regional administration, or
- descent to a lower or worse state. We often hear a lot of the former from politicians but, in some cases, the public receive the latter from a devolution deal.
Cornwall opted early on for unitary status, allegedly on grounds of economy and with a smidgen of devolution. When Cornwall Council received unitary status, it proceeded to devolve all those services which it felt were not its core business, such as toilets and libraries, and many were closed or were transferred into the care of Town Councils, who were forced to raise their rates as a result.
Devolution, in that format, delivered only covert taxation, and the resulting public distrust, has meant that a proposed ‘level 3’ devolution deal, very similar to the scheme outlined by Kent, received poor public feedback and then, after publication of the results was delayed, the proposal was then dropped by Cornwall Council like a hot brick. Cornwall is a conservative controlled authority, like Kent, so the portents for a successful devolution project as proposed in Kent, are not good.
Kent CC in danger of insolvency
What is the situation in Kent? In the past decade, KCC has delivered continual austerity and higher taxation. It routinely threatens that it could become insolvent , unless further savings are made. It may now be running out of options to avoid bankruptcy’. At the moment, it has a lifeline provided by a friendly central government, on the basis that it is too big to fail unlike Northamptonshire County Council but, if the administration changed in Downing Street, or if further economic turmoil hits the UK economy, all bets could be off. KCC had decided to end its ‘wait and see approach’ towards devolution, having already concluded that “there was no desire for local government reorganisation in Kent.” It goes on to state that local government reorganisation would be “unfunded”, “expensive”, “disruptive” and “would delay a devolution deal for Kent.” So what changed?
The politics of Kent changed last May, leaving KCC somewhat isolated within the ruins of a once impregnable Conservative blue wall. Only Sevenoaks and Dartford retained Conservative incumbents, which makes this sudden conversion by KCC towards devolution in Kent seem somewhat desperate and self- serving.
Two tiers, or three?
Apparently, KCC wants to retain what they call the two-tier system (of the county and the district). It is in fact three-tier in many parts of Kent, with the addition of the optional parish or town council. Now this proposal will add another layer in the form of an elected Mayor, as a kind of cherry topping on a very indigestible muffin, with the sole purpose of obtaining government cash. How they are going to persuade Medway, which is a unitary council (meaning all services are provided by one council) into this scheme, is not described.
The scheme comes from the ideas of National Government, specifically the Department of Levelling up. A Bill is currently passing through Parliament which will facilitate this shake-up of local government. What we have seen so far is a focus on the northern powerhouse and getting metro mayors in position in northern cities. Now Kent councillors fear that our county will lose out in economic attractiveness, and government subsidies. So far KCC has taken a cautious approach to this shake-up of local government. Initially devolution and metro mayors were thought to be suitable only for large conurbations, and not for counties. But now the government is pushing ahead with it for many county areas.
There are three options to consider, but the Government prefers option 3, with the money and priority for the attention of the national civil servants being channelled through it. The devolution goodies on offer include more powers over local transport, both road and rail; more powers over adult education and skills, a 30 year investment fund worth some £35-40m, and other devolved funds such as for home regeneration.
The KCC paper states that this mayoral option (with all the powers and money attached) would get it out of the current financial trap where people-based services (especially social care) use up so much money that “place-based” services ( of economic regeneration, transport improvements etc) are deprived of resourcing.
So what’s so bad about it?
For a start, the existing system is not working at all well. The mere fact the electors threw over so many incumbent District administrations ought to have penetrated the Maidstone bubble.
KCC is a failing institution. For example, KCC is missing its pothole repair target. KCC blames bad-weather! Furthermore, KCC is saying that the roads in Kent are in “managed decline.” Highways management is a key part of why KCC exists, so failing to deliver a decent road network is an issue of credibility for KCC.
Only this month, KCC’s failing bus plan had to be bailed out by the Government, because the bus network in Kent is beginning to implode.
Furthermore, the Kent resilience forum did not stop the gridlock at the Port of Dover docks last Easter. Public anger over road repairs is not diminishing.
In the report’s analysis and commentary on page 402–4.13, KCC assures the Districts that KCC has no designs on the Districts’ planning powers. However, developers are using their financial muscle to intimidate impecunious Districts by launching expensive planning appeals. Dissatisfaction with the planning system by the public is a major issue. A stronger unitary council offers a better balance of forces in planning matters.
Why is this a bad idea?
- The existing system is failing and adding a mayor to the administrative layers of government will make no difference.
- It would undoubtedly attract mini me ‘Boris Johnsons’ to run for Mayor. The combination of buffoonery and incompetence is too awful to contemplate.
- The system would continue to be remote and unwieldy but, also, not sufficiently strategic where it is needed.
- No one has yet asked the public, and no one has asked local councils what they think. Granted what KCC councillors were asked to decide on is only to issue “an Expression of Interest” in the option 3 devolution, and much consultation with all stakeholders and the public would then follow.
- Kent already has received some devolution in education, and the result is Kent grammar schools are among the least inclusive institutions in England, and they even take out of county pupils in preference to those living within the County. 75% of the County’s children receive a second-rate education, which leaves them ill-equipped for the technological challenges of the future. This will continue with this KCC proposal.
- Kent is one of the wealthiest parts of a wealthy region, but many of its coastal communities and eastern urban areas are deprived. Adding on a further tier of government is not going to change that situation.
What’s the alternative?
- Divide Kent into three parts: East, West and Estuarial (Medway, Dartford & Gravesham).
- Each would have the required 500,000 population to benefit from devolution cash.
- They would be based on recognised city/town centres such as Canterbury, Chatham, and Maidstone.
- They could have a mayor, but only if the election system meant that every vote counted by means of a proportional voting system.
- The various services of the new devolved bodies would themselves be devolved down to the lowest possible level, so that remoteness and unaccountability was avoided.
- There would have to be checks and balances with an assembly for each devolved administration, to deliver adequate oversight over the mayor.
- Devolution should be done gradually, but be far reaching. ‘Moon shot’ policies that rush at a problem don’t work and make things worse.
- Regional problems should be dealt with by regional bodies that would be accountable to the new devolved bodies located throughout the South East region. An example of this would be a reconstituted Transport for the South East, shorn of its pointless road building preferences.
But the options on offer from the national department of levelling up do not include this type of devolution. So the money on offer is tempting the KCC councillors to consider a Metro Mayor.