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9 Nov 2017.  


Politics watchers might remember that prior to the 2015 General Election the Chancellor of the Exchequer committed the Coalition Government to establishing English devolution.

This was partly because of the dismantling of the Regional economic and spatial planning system in 2010 left a void which was filled - in part and less than satisfactorily - by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and the cross boundary planning requirements (duty to cooperate) introduced through the Localism Act 2011.

What the devolution agenda reveals is a tacit admission of failure i.e. that the work LEPs are charged with does actually require democratic accountability and a remit which is wider than just economic growth.  (What CPRE and others have consistently argued)

Will a system that aims to empower councils voluntarily to come together and form regional or sub-regional authorities with a range of powers tailored to meet their own requirements survive constraints by government (such as the alignment with existing LEPs and their boundaries or the requirements for particular electoral arrangements)?

Where has it got to, and does it yet affect us in Wiltshire?

By February 2016 the Houser of Commons produced a briefing paper on Combined Authorities, by which time a number of authorities were well on their way to creating the necessary management arrangements which involved cross border, cross constituency and local government re-organisation reviews.

A new devolution deal was announced for a West of England Combined Authority comprising Bristol City Council, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire Council which would involve a directly elected mayor. WECA came into being in February 2017 with Tim Bowles as first mayor.  It covers the area to the east of Bath towards Bradford on Avon, on the border of Wiltshire.  It is hoped by the mayor that North Somerset Council will “evolve” a desire to become part of the CA.  The present area received a devo deal of £1bn to deliver infrastructure to boost economic growth.  The future inclusion of North Somerset would result in an area with a sub-regional plan (Joint Spatial Plan) with immense administrative power.

The WECA is already moving forward to the production of a statutory sub regional spatial framework, one that will include a transport strategy.  Somewhat akin to the former Regional Spatial Strategy.

Wiltshire.  In 2015 Wiltshire Council put in a “One Wiltshire” devolution bid to government in tandem with health partners and the police and crime commissioner, asking for more powers and envisaging closer collaboration with each other.  

Swindon Borough Council also, separately, expressed an interest in having more devolved powers.

However it is understood that so far any talks about coming together and making a combined bid had failed initially.  The current state of affairs is unclear.

That said, the two LAs do work together on a number of platforms and through the Swindon and Wiltshire LEP.   Wiltshire and Swindon are launching the consultation on a joint framework strategy to 2036 this week, 6th November, for a period of 6 weeks.   CPRE will be looking at this strategy.

The concern of CPRE in these hugely complex and unfolding scenarios is to be able to establish by what means the comprehensive planning powers which protect environmental concerns will be included. 

Economic agendas all but ignore environmental capacity and rural issues such as landscape and countryside protection.  Joint strategic transport plans have far reaching effects and raise the question of the relationship between towns or cities and their rural hinterlands.

Combined Authorities, to which there are no direct elections, will be difficult to influence and interact with.  

If the new form of provincial government units align with LEPs, where will be the system of accountability, and the same duties of openness and freedom of information that local authorities, and the previous Regional Spatial Strategies, were subject to through public consultation, environmental assessment and public examination?

These provincial governance bodies need to be in a position to integrate and coordinate activities in their areas.  This can be achieved through production of a proper vision for the future of the area, working with constituent communities.  This vision should be as much about the protection of those parts of the area that are cherished as it would be about growth or regeneration.












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