Lincolnshire

Marianne Overton: Why I voted against the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal

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We have all argued long and hard for devolution of powers and money to local government. With a £15m a year sweetener, what could go wrong?

Here are some thoughts on why Lincolnshire County Council voted against the devolution deal, 43 votes to 17. South Kesteven District Council has now followed suit.

At a time when demands are rising and funds from central government reducing, authorities have already made significant cuts.

Councils with adult care responsibility like Lincolnshire, have very few services protected, leaving libraries, services for children and young people, highways maintenance, lighting, grass cutting and the arts all hard hit.

Contracts are tightened to the point where some are handed back, unable to make ends meet after all, while reserves are used for revenue and assets sold off. Sound familiar?

Our council struggled to set a future budget beyond the first year, based on having just accepted one of the worst settlements, which is planned to make us the lowest funded shire county in the country by 2020, based on spending power per dwelling, leaving us around £78m short.

The new growth fund is not able to support our current services, but to enable us to borrow larger sums for new development that would help businesses and encourage 100,000 new dwellings to raise more taxes.

That only works if you reduce the spend per head and don’t provide matching services.

The deal also relies on being able to achieve rapid economic development, despite national concerns. Paying back the borrowed money from revenue could be a tough call.

To put it into perspective, the Lincolnshire Enterprise Partnership, of which the county council is part, already has a growth fund of £146m.

But devolution isn’t about the money not being enough to make a significant difference. It is also about democracy.

A successful elected mayor for a vast rural area is hard to visualise. Cornwall did well with devolution to their current democratic authority.

The Greater Lincolnshire proposal includes three upper tier authorities, seven tier two authorities, several hundred separate communities with their own parish councils, two police authorities and six health authorities (CCGs).

The sheer logistics of democratic accountability to one person over 2,687 square miles and difficult roads is hard to visualise.

When we are short of funds, is it the right time to create another layer of government?

The consultation in Lincolnshire raised a small but significant response strongly against the idea of a mayoral authority.

Instead it is felt by many that it would be better to unite our efforts in seeking a better funding solution for Lincolnshire.

Many members had difficulty with the idea of signing the deal in trust, aiming to sort out the detail later once powers were then transferred and the minister able to make some unilateral changes if he so chose.

Papers that arrived recently included plans to put transport into the new authority under the mayor, which looked to many like the start of a trend in the wrong direction and something of a Trojan horse.

I and all but one of my Lincolnshire Independent colleagues voted “no” to the new mayoral authority.

With it being such a significant issue for our county, no party whip was applied, and the genuine debate was probably the best I have ever entered. Discovering how good a council can be, may just turn out to be the biggest benefit of all.

Our councils can and often do work well together and already have significant funds for growth.

By getting our democracy right, and working together, we will achieve more for our residents than previously dreamed possible, because we all believe in democracy and local decision-making, taken at the time with the facts available.