In accordance with Standing Order No. 8, the following questions were put by Councillor Leadbetter to the Leader.
Question – I would like to ask the Leader of the Council to report on his negotiations with Plymouth City Council, regarding the formation of Devolution Deal for the Southwest, to include an elected Mayor?
Question - Please would he detail who is has been in discussions with.....does this include Torbay Council? Which other Council?
Question – Is this a precursor to a South Devon Unitary?
Question – Finally facing confirmed that such a deal would include a directly elected Mayor - does he think such a person, who in theory could live in Plymouth, would best represent the interests of Exeter and East Devon?
The Leader thanked Councillor Leadbetter for allowing him the opportunity to clarify what had taken place on the matter of a devolution bid and what has been reported in the media over the weekend. He replied that:-
“All Members would be aware that the Heart of the South West Councils 17 local authority leaders began working on a potential bid for devolution of powers and funding well over a year ago.
In February this year we formally submitted to the Secretary of State a prospectus as an opening position for negotiations for a devolution deal. As John Osman, the lead member for the bid had acknowledged, we had received no response from the Secretary of State. Indeed, further letters had gone unanswered.
The reason was not a mystery. The Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, when recently in Exeter told the Leaders the Devolution of powers and funding would be dependent on the Councils agreeing to sign up to an Elected Mayor/Leader that would be accountable for the new powers and funding that Government would devolve to Council. Currently most Local Government Leaders in the Heart of the South West are ruling out an Elected Mayor model. Therefore, our Heart of the South West (HotSW) submission sits in a pending tray.
In October last year, when the Leaders wrote to the MPs to inform them what we were doing, John Hart and John Osman stated: “We have in our hands a historic opportunity to create jobs and wealth, improve health and social care and deliver better connectivity and resilience for 1.7million people and businesses in Devon, Plymouth, Somerset, and Torbay.” They were right, this was an historic opportunity, but ruling out an Elected Leader/Mayor means we would miss this opportunity.
Accordingly, when the Secretary of State visited Exeter and I had a meeting with him, I asked him would he be willing to consider other options for progressing a Devolution bid. He told me he would consider anything. Both the Leader of Plymouth and I separately came to the conclusion that it was incumbent on us for the sake of our residents, businesses, our communities and our universities that the Councils explore all options. To this end we thought it would appropriate for us to meet the Mayor of Torbay.
A meeting was put in the Mayor of Torbay diary by Plymouth and three weeks, later on the eve of the meeting, he informed us he would not meet. Through his Chief Executive, he suggested a Unitary Devon without Plymouth is probably the best option for the future. Instead of meeting the Mayor, Plymouth and Exeter City Councils met the Torbay Chief Executive and David Thomas, Leader of the Conservative group in Torbay. We had a single conversation to discuss whether there was any merit in considering an Elected Leader model for the basis of a devolution deal that would unlock the powers and funding from government. I have also had breakfast with the Leaders of East Devon and Teignbridge. On the basis of these single conversations - someone had sought an advantage through the press to suggest that we were proposing a super Council and breaking up Devon.
I can categorically state this is not a pre-cursor to a South Devon Unitary. I have repeatedly stated, and indeed, Council had agreed this Council’s presence in a devolution bid should only be on the basis of no change to the structure of Local Government.
Also, any suggestion of a unitary council for this area showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the devolution agenda. A Solent combined authority was being set up by Southampton, Portsmouth and The Isle of Wight; a West of England combined authority was being set up Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire. Neither of these combined authorities was forming a super, unitary council. But they were looking forward to around £1bn of funding, new powers and an Elected Leader who would represent their various interests.
At the Leaders’ meeting at Padbrook last Friday, John Osman sought to tie the Councils hands from exploring any other options from the one that was simply not going anywhere. I was not prepared to do this. If it was an historic opportunity last year, it was still an historic opportunity today. The Council badly need this investment in infrastructure. A potential £1billion of funding demands the Council take it seriously and with some pace. Targeted investment in urban areas which were magnets for growth was a proven model that the Council could ill afford to reject even being able to talk about.
Turning to the question could a person living in Plymouth represent the interests of Exeter and East Devon. Currently your Leader of Devon County Council, Councillor John Hart, lived on the doorstep of Plymouth and I assume you were content that he looked after the interests of all of us in Devon. Likewise the Chairman of the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) lived outside Exeter and looked after the interests of businesses from Plymouth to Sedgemoor. If I may say so, this was a shallow point to make, when the Council was trying to find a way to unlock powers and funding from Government. Can I just remind all of us, when the Council went cap in hand to Devon County Council (DCC) for funding to build a new bus station to serve the rural communities in Devon, the County Council said they did not have the funding. Moreover, even with your apparent support, the Council still could not get any funding from the LEP. Indeed, DCC would not borrow for capital investment full stop. Hence why a £billion funding was so important to all of us.
For the record, all that had happened is the Council have said it must explore the option on an Elected Mayor if this was the price the Government had set to access devolution powers and a £billion funding.”
In response to two supplementary questions from Councillor Leadbetter, the Leader clarified that the Leader of Devon County Council, Councillor John Hart, had responded to himself that he had no ambition for a Unitary Devon but would consider this option if he was asked to by a Government Minister. No brochure had been produced setting out plans with regards to the talks that were currently taking place.