This week a national website that specialises in promoting public sector jobs has advertised a well paid role in the Sussex area. The post which is described as an exciting opportunity is Policy and Projects Manager for an organisation known as Greater Brighton Economic Board. According to the advert the successful applicant will join the Greater Brighton core team on a 1-year fixed term basis, to support the City Region with the development and implementation of its Devolution Bid to Government, to gain greater freedoms, flexibilities and funding at local level. Working across the partnership and with key stakeholders, the successful applicant will be required to both assist with the development of the City Region’s Devolution policy proposals and initiatives and to programme or project manage the related projects.
Any new job in our area is good news and as this one pays a wage that is well above the regional average, it is to be applauded as it has the potential to make a positive contribution to our economy. What is a little less certain is what the Greater Brighton Economic Board does and what the City Region and its devolution bid will achieve for local residents and to whom will this person be accountable in their role. They will be added to the payroll of Brighton and Hove Council so that is a clue and the greater Brighton area also encompasses the Councils of Worthing and Adur, Mid Sussex and Lewes District. It is part of the attempt by local councils to devolve power from Westminster to Sussex that began several years ago.
Coincidentally while the job advert has been circulating, MPs were discussing local devolution strategies as part of a Parliamentary debate entitled ‘Elected Mayors’. One of the speakers was Labour MP Justin Madders. Mr Madders spoke about the need for local people to be kept informed of such developments. He referred to comments by Bob Kerslake who was once head of the Civil Service. Justin said “That goes against the views of experts such as Lord Kerslake, the chair of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, who stated that public engagement should take place during “the process of coming to the deal”, and then, “having done the deal”. The Communities and Local Government Committee also criticised the negotiation process, saying that it lacks rigour, and that “there are no clear, measurable objectives for devolution, the timetable is rushed and efforts are not being made to inject openness or transparency into the deal negotiations.” I share the views of both men that engaging with local residents over such matters is a necessity. This is not simply a matter of politeness or accountability, even though those reasons would justify the use of public money to promote the work that is going on. As Justin Madders said later in the debate “For devolution to take root and fulfil its aims, it needs to involve and engage the people it is designed to benefit.”
I first became aware of the plans by Brighton & Hove Council to establish the Greater Brighton region two years ago when Jason Kitcat was leader of the Council. He and I were both members of a Committee and he spoke briefly about these plans on several occasions. There were also comments by Geoffrey Theobald as leader of the Conservative group on the Council. I raised my concerns with both men and the Chief Executive of the Council explaining that discussions need to involve a wider range of organisations and that the Council needed to communicate their intentions and plans to local people. Since then Labour have replaced the Greens as the leading political group in the city and Warren Morgan has taken over from Jason Kitcat in the negotiations. Sadly the silence on this issue continues as though local people are not important enough to be consulted on a matter that clearly will impact on us and depends on us. The irony is that similar plans involving people in East and West Sussex are also developing, but East Sussex Council has been a great deal more open about them than our own Council.
Perhaps once the Policy and Projects Manager has been appointed we can be told a bit more about this important Board and its plans. Having spotted the job advert I noticed that it included a link to a press release on the work of the Greater Brighton Economic Board that sits on the City Council website. I followed the link in the hope of reading more that would update my knowledge. It is indicative of the lack of openness in this process that the press release is dated May 2014, so 25 months old! There is a further link to a sanitised set of agendas and minutes of the meetings that do take place, but this is not engagement by my standards!