For several years the City Council here in Brighton & Hove have been involved in discussions with their colleagues in Adur & Worthing, Mid Sussex and Lewes to explore a concept they call the Greater Brighton Economic Area. The idea is that these Councils and the people who live within their areas have more to gain by working together than we have by the Councils working in isolation. After 15 years of working with local authorities across Sussex my experience is that the sense of isolation which Brighton & Hove Council has managed to create is intense, and the same is true in the opposite direction. On the surface these Councillors and their civil servants have been polite with one another, but time after time after time, the opportunity to work together has been rejected, or simply been allowed to fail due to a lack of ‘enthusiasm’. Many of these failures have cost local people dear, particularly those who live in the areas close to the borders between local authority boundaries. On the face of it the Greater Brighton Area is a good thing for the half million people living in the area concerned and a fantastic sign that this local ice age is thawing. Fridays announcement from the Department of Communities and Local Government that one of the 38 landmark devolution areas is to be Greater Brighton on the face of it could be very good news. In theory the devolution will be about the Government devolving power from Whitehall down to Greater Brighton. At its ultimate conclusion we might be invited to say if we want a Greater Brighton Mayor? That is what has happened in the Greater Manchester area. However that is a long way down the line.
My concern is that to date, the only people involved in discussions about Greater Brighton have been Councillors, Civil Servants, Educators (Universities) and a small number of Business networks. In meetings I have attended when this has been discussed I have called robustly for Voluntary Sector agencies and other parts of the community to be included in this process and have written about that previously. It is obvious to me that economic growth cannot be achieved without a much broader coalition than the selected agencies operating in private. Sadly my calls for involvement have had very limited effect. I also question if the right geography for devolution in Sussex is this greater Brighton area. Far too many of us work outside of this area, why has Wealden and Eastbourne not been included for example? In practice the answer to that question has been that it is difficult enough to get agreement with the Councils involved. However we are now faced with an application by democratically elected Councillors for this project to be given Government support. Any devolution is to be welcomed, but that is a principle in my view, not a tightly controlled process. For Councils to apply for a devolution from Westminster without devolving their own thinking to local residents and asking us to endorse their ideas seems to me to be a betrayal of this principle.