Exeter’s plans for independence are Pickled

The election month of May isn’t even done with yet but the Liberal-Conservative alliance has already dealt a hefty blow to localism in Exeter. Plans to allow Exeter to ‘break away’ from Devon County Council and form a unitary authority have been quashed by the new minister for dealing with all things local, Eric Pickles. Opponents to the new unitary authority i.e. the Lib Dem-Conservative dominated County Council argued that the unitary authority was all for the benefit of Labour (even though it’s actually run by the Lib Dems), so the new government’s response has been to rise above such narrow-minded power grabbing by reversing the decision made by parliament, and giving the Tories and Liberals in Devon what they wanted instead. So much for a move towards localism by Pickles!

I know that there are some on the left who are not keen on unitary authorities, and this is understandable. There is always a fear that it will result in job cuts and large amounts of money being spent on the changeover. But with the national deficit as bad as it is and the new regime looking to make ‘savings’, there’s nothing to suggest that the County Council won’t cut jobs anyway, and it seems unlikely that the Lib-Cons were going to allow Exeter City Council to throw money around redesigning logos and letterheads. Locally focused services are more likely to make it clear to local communities and the powers-that-be in town halls or Whitehall exactly what the frontline of public services actually consists of: schools, road maintenance, housing, street cleaning, and the administration that such services ultimately require. You name the service – its frontline; but what does frontline actually mean if such services provided in your area are very different to the services in another part of the county which falls under the same authority?

Exeter is a distinct community from rural Devon. Living here, I can never quite get over how huge the county is. Exeter to Barnstaple is about the same distance as Brighton to south London (and that’s only half the county); but in the South East, you’d pass through several local authorities on your way. It seems unreasonable to expect a farmer living fifty miles away on the moors of West Devon to care about congestion (which is pretty bad) or social housing demand (even worse) in an urban area like Exeter when he comes to vote in the County Council elections. People are asked to think of the bigger picture in general elections, but local election decisions are rightly based on our local experiences. But that’s the current set-up, mad as it is. It’s hard now to imagine Torbay or Plymouth being part of Devon County Council and it was only a matter of time before Exeter went the same way. If the government are serious about devolving power to local communities they could do worse than make a decent start by letting Exeter have its independence.

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