Written evidence from Nick Burton (EDE 40)

 

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Evolution of Devolution: English Devolution

 

Summary

          The scope of the Committee’s inquiries should cover the introduction of target driven County-wide Growth Boards and Spatial Frameworks as well as major cities. They appear to be a key part of the Government’s undeclared and unscrutinised policy on devolution in England outside of major cities

          Growth Boards (under their new name) and Spatial Frameworks should have a proper legislative framework, such as exists for metro mayors.

          Growth Boards and Spatial Framework should be subject to greater scrutiny from local democratic mechanisms as well as HoC Select Committees.  In particular they should be directly elected against a published manifesto.

          One key example of this use of Spatial Framework is for the Oxford Cambridge Arc, but it is an artificial artefact not an economic reality.  Housing is more local, transport is either local or extends outside the Arc.  There are serious questions as to whose interests it is designed to serve.

          A better alternative for devolution in such areas are more localised bodies such as the Oxfordshire Growth Board; it would be better named a Sustainable Development Board.

          The Cambridge Peterborough Combined Authority could become a Sustainable Development Board and a further one added for Milton Keynes.  They need to have a majority of rural focussed authorities from the surrounding areas

          There should be legal limits on housing density in all large scale new developments to reduce the risk of deaths, serious public health issues and serious economic dislocation due to pandemics such as Covid-19.  Milton Keynes would be a good model as a starting point.

          Housing targets for large or multiple conurbations should require OBR or ONS certification.

Introduction

My name is Nick Burton and I live in Central Beds.  I am retired and currently a volunteer at Bedford Hospital. I have worked, directly or indirectly, for the Cabinet Office, DBEIS, MoD, Home Office, DfE, 2 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, 2 Local Authorities and 6 FTSE 100 companies.  I am a member of the successful No Expressway Group which changed the Government’s policy on the unneeded Oxford-Cambridge Expressway.

Scope of the PACAC Inquiry

Most of the commentary in the Inquiry’s remit is focussed on the extent to which powers devolved to London should also be devolved to other cities and their mayors.  However other devolution mechanisms such as spatial frameworks and traditional county based so called Growth Boards need also to be considered.  This is particularly important as they are far weaker in the democratic scrutiny of both their establishment and operation. This paper concentrates on the effect of these mechanisms on the Oxford Cambridge Arc, but has applicability to other areas.

The existing English devolution arrangements are primarily focussed on planning and transport and so this paper follows that lead. However, the importance of public health structures in the current covid epidemic mean that should also be considered.

I have limited my comments to those questions in the inquiry where I believe that I can add value.

Discussion – Question 2 - What aims and principles should drive devolution?

The key driver for devolution has been to transfer power to a more local level.  The principle behind this needs to be effective democratic accountability and transparency.  This includes an unambiguous “offer” to voters.  It cannot be right for councillors elected for one purpose and role to be used to provide a democratic “fig leaf” through membership of a different organisation with potentially much wider powers.  Whereas local councillors conduct various forms of surgery and are scrutinised by opposition members in their executive role Growth Boards in the Oxfordshire example can only exist on a collegiate basis – there is no opposition and limited scrutiny. Similarly, they perpetuate the worst excesses of local councils in the 20th century, being fully funded by central government programmes, and therefore not being required to account for their profligate development to their constituents.

The description of the development of the so called Oxford-Cambridge Arc in Appendix 2 demonstrates the flawed thinking largely driven by pecuniary advantage that has skewed the current profligacy against the interests of the wider community.  It would be an exaggeration to call it a process.

Appendix 2 shows that there is actually little economic development co-operation along the Arc, and also that the key transport requirements are either local to the cities or extend outside the Arc.  We therefore need a devolution model to fit these requirements.

In the current era of climate change and the post Covid-19 economic downturn it is clear that long distance commuting is no longer a sensible policy.  So housing needs to be close to jobs.  Given that most jobs are urban then most housing needs to be urban or close to urban centres.  This gives rise to the most significant decision on housing and related development is over how far a city is allowed to expand into its adjacent rural areas.  Although there are reservations on its status and implementation the Oxfordshire Growth Board would appear to be a potential model to manage the rate and style of housing development, centred on the employment centre of Oxford, but also sensitive to other Oxfordshire towns. It has a negotiated agreement among its six councils over the provision of the additional 15,000 houses that central government say that Oxford City requires, and in which council area they should be located. By including all of the mostly rural surrounding districts (approx. 40% of Oxfordshire’s population is rural[1]) they have a majority of the votes on the Growth Board over the city.  The housing target is imposed via the MHLGC’s “Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal”, but at least how and where Oxford should grow is a negotiated settlement, albeit within a quasi-democratic body with limited accountability, low levels of transparency and blatant conflicts of interest.

The story of the 1,000,000 housing target or aspiration for the Arc has further destroyed any confidence in a central government led approach.  The story of government economic management and forecasting provides two recent examples of how to improve its credibility on housing targets.  These are the implementation of the independence of the Bank of England and the establishment of the OBR[2].  Not perfect but better.  It is therefore recommended that any housing targets or aspirations or other new nomenclatures imposed from central government have an independent certification on the economic growth calculation from the OBR and/or ONS.  Otherwise the current conflicts back and forward will continue and we all, especially those needing the houses, suffer.    

Although transport policy is generally a national issue it is important that its implications are fed into local policy and that feedback back upwards occurs. The existing inclusion of Network Rail and Highways England within the Growth Board should ensure this.

The handling of much of the covid pandemic has highlighted that local solutions are more effective and that central government lacks the competence to implements its plans, however scientific they are based.  This lack of competence includes procurement and contract letting as well as direct activities. The plans for further devolution should include the ability to expand local services in emergencies by the use of contingency planning, dormant contracts and more pre-positioning.

Discussion - Question Four - How asymmetric the devolution solution should be?

One of the long-term concerns with central government policies across parties and departments is the failure to recognise local differences.  I would particularly highlight the failure to recognise the impact of expanding urban development on rural areas. Milton Keynes is an example of this, sucking in all investment like a Giant Vampire Squid, but failing to provide critical services such as sufficient station car parking to service rural users dependent on cars.  The effect of this investment imbalance has been the obliteration of rural bus services, dislocation of train services (as the historic hub of Bletchley is now in the wrong place) and the ever increasing development pressure on rural villages nearby.

It is therefore clear that rural areas need their own form of devolution so that they are not simply obliterated by urban development.  This is not simple Nimbyism.  17% of England’s population live in rural areas (as shown in Appendix 1), which is larger than the swing between political parties in recent general elections, itself deemed as sufficient to merit major government policy changes. 

The model for giving  rural based district and unitary authorities a majority vote within a democratic Sustainable Development Board surrounding major conurbations would rebalance the investment priorities and require active negotiation to find a balanced solution rather that the attempt to impose further growth such as the Milton Keynes Plan 2050. 

The Milton Keynes Sustainable Development Board would therefore incorporate MK Unitary Authority, Central Beds Unitary Authority, South Northamptonshire District Council (to be superseded by a Unitary Authority), Bucks Unitary Authority, Bedford Unitary Authority and possibly Wellingborough District Council (to be superseded by a different Unitary Authority).  This will be an innovative solution crossing the historic county boundaries and with a different balance of power with all of the members being (or about to be) Unitary Authorities.  It nevertheless recognises the realities of the priorities balance that will have to be resolved if sustainable development is to be achieved in the increasingly crowded is to be accepted.  It will need to be understood that such negotiated settlements, incentivised solely by central government funding, will triumph on the basis on traditional naval relationship settlements of all being equally miserable with the outcome.   

Discussion - Question Six - how devolution decisions should be agreed?

This is a two part question.  It is clear that more democracy is essential if the current presumptions in favour of skewing investment solely in favour of financial return and ignoring need and social consequence are to be challenged.

The first question is how the additional devolution is to be agreed.  The existing technique of a simple majority referendum on a new devolution mechanism would seem to be an acceptable solution overcoming the low turnout common in local democracy.

The other aspect is how the new Boards are renewed and maintained.  Direct elections against a manifesto would be the best solution, but there is also sensible pressure to maintain a link with the constituent authorities.  So if this is viewed as overriding then there are lessons from corporate governance that could be incorporated.  One of these, now in current corporate Governance Code[3] is the implied limitation of time in office.  This is implemented as period of 9 years on a “comply or explain” basis.   This is because regular renewal of Board members is seen as critical to maintain development and integrity.  If the nomination of representatives from constituent authorities is seen as essential then they should be time limited.  This would focus on achievement rather than time serving that part of local government is prone to.  The argument of regular elections being a substitute for time limits is not sustainable given that it clearly does not work already and company directors are elected annually without achieving the same aim either.

It also needs to be recognised that there are risks to maintaining the current democratic deficit and lack of scrutiny.  Social media and the examples of citizens taking direct action have become more prevalent in the last 2 decades.  So it would not be surprising if representatives of both local government acting outside their directly elected role and industry leaders became targeted personally either online or physically due to the level of frustration at the absence of any proper accountability or transparency mechanism.    

Discussion - Question Seven - How regional views are better represented to central government?

The key question here is not the mechanism but the lever.  There are a number of options as to how to get the government’s attention.  In the current climate the most effective mechanisms appear to be:

  1. A group of government MPs of sufficient cohesion and size to influence a government vote.
  2. Similar to above - a group of newly won MPs seats that could affect the outcome of the next election 
  3. An elected Mayor of sufficient experience and breadth of control to negotiate with central government, if necessary via media headlines.

However a directly elected Sustainable Development Board would come closest to achieving at least the third option.

Discussion - Question Eight - How much demand there is for more devolution?

There appears to be little demand for further devolution, but this is not the same as the need.  The success of the No Expressway Campaign is a measure of the grassroots support across a wide area despite a planning mechanism[4] that banned formal consultation and a deliberate attempt at official obfuscation.

If sustainable development and transport changes are to be delivered close to large urban conurbations in England then a better basis for negotiating the settlement is needed.

Discussion - Question a (9 as a typo?) – What should be the form and attributes of devolution, and what is the role of culture and identity?

In many ways this is actually the most significant question.  The biggest criticism from devolution is the failure of central government to understand local differences and therefore to carelessly and unthinkingly to obliterate local culture as a result.  The widespread growth of out of town shopping malls, indentikit pattern irrespective of location, and trumpeted as welcome “local” investment are a symptom of this behaviour.  Therefore it is important that any solution recognises that that differences and competition between Oxford and Cambridge (or Liverpool and Manchester or Nottingham and Derby or Wigan and Warrington) are more important than trying to impose an artificial economic artefact on them.

One possible mechanism to gauge where the boundary should be drawn would be to include the question along the style of “Do the inhabitants of Oxford want the investment in the Arc if the new headquarters will be in Cambridge?”  That will sort the sheep from the goats in short order.

Oxfordshire Growth Board

Although the Oxfordshire Growth Board is described as a possible model for the future it is defective in several important aspects at the moment.  There needs to be a much clearer recognition that growth for its own sake is not always beneficial to individuals or communities.  Gordon Geeko is not God. So a name change to Oxfordshire Sustainable Development Board would be more sensible, but the existing name has been kept for this submission.

From the outside the key role appears to be to allow MHCLG to impose housing targets on an area by, to misquote a film, making an offer they cannot refuse.  That the target is renamed frequently to confuse the outside observer reinforces this impression.  To quote from a recent meeting “The assessment of growth needs commission is not a “SHMA[5]”. The Government guidance has moved on since the Oxfordshire SHMA was undertaken in 2014, and the brief for the current commission reflects the latest guidance and national policy position.” If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, then it’s an imposed target.

There is also ambiguity about the Oxfordshire Growth Board’s status, certainly to a layman.  There are various statements that it is a statutory body and is producing a Joint Statutory Spatial Plan.  Yet a search in the record of all government legislation (legislation.gov.uk) will find not find a single reference to a Growth Board or a Spatial Strategy. There is an obligation on local authorities to cooperate in the 2011 Localism Act, but that is not the same as saying a completely new body is statutory.  It claims to have produced a new set of Terms of Reference (TORs) making it more accountable, but how can a statutory body amend its own Terms of Reference? The two specific functions that it undertakes are Strategic Planning and management of the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal.  Without a proper legislative basis the former role appears to be in breach of the Localism Act which abolished Regional Strategies.  Strategic Planning appears to be another example of something that looks like a duck and walks like a duck so it probably is a Regional Strategy. 

Although meetings are partially open to the public scrutiny is controlled.  All questions are answered by the chairman with no discussion.  The response to questions at the recent review was to try and blame all issues on communication problems rather than acknowledge the inadequacies of what had been established.

The review stated that “The feedback from the Growth Board Scrutiny Panel highlighted the importance of incorporating environmental and social elements into the Growth Board’s work.” But that was downgraded to “The revisions to the Growth Board Terms of Reference needed to reflect inclusive growth and sustainability.”  Which is not the same thing. 

It is also of note that the minutes of the Oxfordshire Growth Board 28 Jan 2020 Meeting records NO declarations of interest despite the universities’ large property holdings and the remit of the LEP to bring about sustainable economic growth.  While these objectives may be laudable in themselves they are not neutral.  This is a clear indicator that the Growth Board membership must reflect a wider group of stakeholders than simply those committed to growth per se. One of the clear aims of the 2011 Localism Act was to prevent such undeclared conflicts of Interest influencing public policy.  The Growth Board would appear to be in breach of this. This is particularly important where the serious imbalance between social and affordable housing provision, cost and reality of need remains a key issue for Oxfordshire. The active participation of groups such as CPRE, Need not Greed, FoE and POETS in the review process has indicated the value that wider stakeholder participation would bring.

Cambridgeshire Growth Board

One of the anomalies within the Arc is where does Peterborough fit in?  The existing documentation often excludes it, again driven by the focus on an incomplete transport network rather than a sensible analysis of the economic reality, but at least it already has good road and rail links.  The actual economic reality has led to the creation of the Cambridge Peterborough Combined

Authority, albeit with its own imperfections.  So how will this fit with an Arc driven Spatial Strategy? 

It would seem far more sensible to develop the Combined Authority into the full blown Growth Board that should emerge from the reforms described above.  Otherwise who is in charge of Cambridgeshire’s future growth?

Recommendations:

1.       The Committee should recognise that devolution has to encompass more than metro mayors and the hidden agendas in establishing Growth Boards and Spatial Frameworks for pecuniary advantage.

2.       The Committee should recognise the democratic deficit in the establishment of Growth Boards and Spatial Frameworks without a legislative framework, accountability or transparency

3.       The establishment of Growth Boards should require secondary legislation, rather than be at the whim of the Department, with published TORs and appropriate local scrutiny, probably including directly elected members, who could also be members of constituent local authorities.  They should be renamed Sustainable Development Boards.

4.       All elected and non-elected members of Growth Boards should be required to declare their interests, including property ownership.  The membership should be expanded to include all stakeholders, including NGOs.

5.       The Committee should question the continued promulgation of the Oxford Cambridge Arc as an economic reality rather than as an artificial artifice to suit vested interests to the disadvantage of the communities it impacts. 

6.       The Committee should condemn the use of elected representatives as a democratic fig leaf in other roles with substantially responsibilities.  Where this is unavoidable a time limit on individual service should be set.

7.       The Committee should support the establishment of Growth Boards based on the Cambridge Peterborough Combined Authority and at Milton Keynes, subject to the reforms described above.  There may be further opportunities elsewhere.

8.       The Committee should recognise that the ultimate aim of devolution is the protection of local culture and differentiation within England against the inclination of central government to carelessly obliterate it and render the country amorphous.

9.       The Committee should recommend that to improve transparency and their acceptance that housing targets for large or multiple conurbations should require OBR or ONS certification prior to being issued.

10.   The Committee should recommend further devolution should include the ability to expand local services in emergencies by the use of contingency planning, dormant contracts and more pre-positioning.

11.   Where any form of devolution extends beyond more than one major conurbation or across historic rivals then a question along the style of “ would you like this investment if it is to headquartered elsewhere?” should be included in any referendum.

12.   The Committee should make recommendations on the development of Sustainable Development Boards for Cambridge and Peterborough, and Milton Keynes.

November 2020

 


Appendix 1

 

2014 Mid-year population estimates (ONS revised Aug 2020)

Category

Population

Proportion (%)

Rural, comprising:

9,260,892

17.0

Rural town and fringe

5,003,956

9.2

of which those in a sparse setting

192,085

0.4

Rural village and hamlet

4,256,936

7.8

of which those in a sparse setting

298,045

0.5

Urban, comprising:

45,055,726

83.0

Urban major conurbation

19,415,739

35.7

Urban minor conurbation

1,948,518

3.6

Urban city and town

23,691,469

43.6

of which those in a sparse setting

90,397

0.2

England

54,316,618

100.0

 

The current estimate is that 20 million will have a metro mayor in May 2021 – given the increase in population from 2014 to 2021 about 40% of the urban population. The Oxford Cambridge Arc has a population of 3.7 million[6]

 


Appendix 2

 

Oxford Cambridge Arc

This is an extract from the MHCLG document issued just after the budget in Mar 2020 - Planning for the Future – “the Arc has the potential to be a world-leading green growth corridor, with high productivity jobs and environmentally-friendly developments. The Spatial Framework will give certainty to businesses and developers about where new housing and employment will be delivered until 2050 and support planning for the right infrastructure to meet social, environmental and economic needs.” 

The above statement is an example of the lack of democratic scrutiny.  The 2019 Conservative Manifesto stated “As part of our plans for full devolution we will also invite proposals from local areas for similar growth bodies across the rest of England, such as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.”

So rather than an invitation for proposals we have a policy statement that a 30 year Spatial Framework will be imposed on the Arc’s inhabitants as to where they will be permitted to live and work.  Given the high level of secrecy, including discredited Non-Disclosure Agreements, imposed on Arc development proposals for the last 5 years there is a severe lack of confidence in this process. 

All of the planning published so far has been to demonstrate how many houses can be imposed in New Town type developments clustered around road junctions on the now postponed Expressway to maximise the use of cars for commuting and achieve an artificial 1,000,000 housing target.  This would require a housing density associated with the majority of the hotspots for covid 19 and the correspondingly high excessive death rates.  

The Oxford Cambridge Arc is an artificial artefact, so it is important to understand what the actual requirement is before designing a devolution solution to fit it.  There are many models for defining economic growth.  One straightforward example is the balance between co-operation (acquire a supersonic passenger aircraft) and competition (acquire millions of paracetamol tablets).  Oxford and Cambridge, as ancient pre-eminent universities evolved into science based innovation hubs, have clearly thrived by competing between the two of them for resources, including talent, funding, recognition and so on.  I have seen examples of this rivalry still being carried forward into individual careers 30 years later.  Any search for examples of co-operation between the cities or their economies will find negligible examples, but one of the few is support for state school entrance into both of the universities.  Similar joint activity has existed in various forms since at least the 1960s to my personal knowledge so is hardly ground breaking.  Another more recent example is that the rightly lauded Oxford Covid vaccine development will be manufactured in Cambridge by Astra Zeneca.  However if Covid had struck 5 years earlier it would have been manufactured in Cheshire at AZ’s previous base and unconnected with the Arc. The recent (Sep 2020) Economic prospectus does   Given the lack of evidence  If competition is the key driver to their success then geography and transport are irrelevant.  We might as well be discussing a Bristol-Glasgow Arc or a Liverpool- Manchester Arc, noting that both do have directly connecting motorway and rail services.

Transport links DO have a wider relevance than to support a non-existent economic cooperation model.  They can be divided into two levels – local and regional and two solutions - public and private.   The table below summarises the most obvious requirements, current and potential plans and their contribution to economic development.

 

 

Public - solution

Public – comment on value

Private - solution

Private – comment on value

Regional

1.       Electrify

existing

EWR[7]

2.       Extend

EWR from Bedford to

Cambridge

The key freight value is the “Electric Spine” from Southampton to Sheffield and subsequently from Felixstowe to the West. The key passenger value is multi-route X-country travel not via London, but NOT confined to the Oxford to Cambridge route

1.       Complete A428 and A421 dualling from Cam-MK.

2.       Dual existing A421 from MK to

M40 in lieu of unneeded Expressway

The key freight value will be to move

Felixstowe lorries from the M25 to join the A1 at Sandy or the M1 at MK. For passengers it will enable more and longer journeys via the existing network, again NOT confined to the Oxford to Cambridge route.

 

 

 

 

 

Local

Align housing development to the EWR and improve local buses impacting car use.  In MK develop

Light Rail

This will focus housing development where the local jobs, including key workers, justify it.  This will make for the shortest possible journeys and  encourage use of public transport

Local improvements to M40 and improve bike routes. In MK maintain existing

“redways”

policy as city expands.

Local road improvements need to focus on buses and cycles to facilitate non-car commuting.

So what does define the Arc? Having peeled away the layers we are left with two items:

1.       The profit margins per house and per acre of housing are higher in the Arc than in the Northern Powerhouse and similar areas

2.       The Arc almost exactly matches the footprint of the Bidwells property development company, one of 3 companies leading the private sector Arc initiatives.

Property developers exist to make money for their shareholders and hence they are strong advocates of removing planning from politicians.

Reform the way local plans are made Local planning authorities play a crucial role in local life, setting a vision, in consultation with local people, about what their area should look like in the future. The plans local authorities draw up set out where new buildings, shops, businesses and infrastructure need to go, and what they should look like.

13 The Government thinks it is important to give local planning authorities greater freedom to get on with this important job without undue interference from central government. The Localism Act will limit the discretion of planning inspectors to insert their own wording into local plans. It also ensures that rather than focussing on reporting progress in making plans to central government, authorities focus on reporting progress to local communities.

Nationally significant infrastructure projects Some planning decisions are so important to our overall economy and so

 

Planned public infrastructure investment in England by region (2014)

£m

% Total

£ per head 2014

£ per head 2019

 

 

 

 

 

London

45295.42

21.96

5304.73

 

South East 6915.66 3.35

 

 

779.33

 

South West 4367.31 2.12

 

 

805.29

 

East 3695.56 1.79

 

 

614.05

 

West Midlands 3474.69 1.68

 

 

608.18

 

East Midlands 3439.19 1.67

 

 

741.62

 

North-East 1083.28 0.53

 

 

413.67

 

North-West 13882.50 6.73

 

 

1946.24

 

Yorks & Humber 4560.45 2.21

 

 

850.83

 

 


[1] Joint Strategic Needs Assessment dated Mar 2019

[2] Office of Budget Responsibility

[3] https://www.frc.org.uk/directors/corporate-governance-and-stewardship/uk-corporate-governance-code

[4] Because the road was part of the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation.

[5] Strategic Housing Market Assessment

[6] MHLGC Oxford Cambridge Arc Declaration  dated March 2019

[7] East West Rail – Oxford-Bletchley-Cambridge