The decision by all of the Councils in Sussex to call on the Government to devolve power to them is something we should all be able to applaud and welcome. This power is currently held in Whitehall, controlled by Ministers who are not accountable to us in any way. Each of us has the opportunity to elect an MP, one of 16 in Sussex, who between them form 2.5% of the House of Commons which is supposed to hold the Government of the day to account. Whilst some of us may value our MP more than we do our local Councillor, the fact is that our Councils are closer to us than Parliament is by almost any measure that one can think of. So that should mean that a call by these various Councils is something we should be pleased about. I have just received my latest email from a group of Councils in Sussex and Surrey explaining about their actions in calling the Government to account for its earlier promises to enable them to retain more of the funds and decision making that is currently passed through their hands to Whitehall departments. The group called 3SC is made up of 25 Councils. They have been open and communicative about their decisions and their actions in a way that still leaves many questions, but at least sets a good tone. However there is one very large elephant in their room, the 26th Council in Sussex and Surrey is Brighton & Hove who have remained outside of this group. They are working with 3 of the other Councils to form an alternative approach to devolution. The 3 Councils that Brighton & Hove is working with are in both bids and it is clear that the Government will not agree to both approaches, and indeed they may not agree to either if there is not local agreement moving forward. Brighton & Hove is after all a vital part of the Surrey and Sussex area.
It might be that Brighton & Hove has got some good ideas, perhaps their bid would be a stronger bid, but its not credible for at least 2 reasons. The first is that if the so called Greater Brighton approach was adopted, the area would be both very small compared to most other devolution approaches around the UK, but it would also leave 22 Councils in Sussex without a plan, whereas the simplicity of Brighton joining the 3SC bid makes perfect sense, even if it would mean the swallowing of a lot of pride. The other reason why the Greater Brighton bid is not credible, is that to date we, as local residents have not been kept informed in the way that 3SC is attempting to keep its residents in the loop. They have just this month created a pretty crude, but nevertheless tangible website here and they have invited people to register to receive updates. The Greater Brighton bid is buried in the City Council website here and whilst there are papers available this bid is presented in such a way that only people looking for it and prepared to make several clicks and down load a document can find out more. There is no way of signing up for updates, no matter how interested people might be on their devolved future.
Ultimately there are good reasons why neither of these bids is currently fit for purpose. The first is that neither does address the issue of the other bid in an effective manner. The idea that we should ask Government to devolve power to two squabbling groups is clearly naive. Instead of making a cohesive call upon Whitehall, we are asking them to judge which is the best plan (or perhaps which is their preferred plan). That is not devolution in the true sense of the word. The second is that neither group has made any attempts to involve what David Cameron used to refer to as the Big Society, or what others may refer to as “society considered as a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity.” or civil society. The lack of involvement of charities such as Action in Rural Sussex, Age UK, YMCA Downslink Group, Brighton Housing Trust, Care for the Carers, Neighbourhood Watch etc makes that clear. A wide range of charities and other agencies that operate across Sussex and in some cases across Surrey too need to be brought into this mix, in the same way that some businesses have been involved. There are many of these and clearly none of them could participate in discussions individually. However to attempt to devolve power from Whitehall without the wisdom and understanding of communities that these agencies bring is deeply flawed. We risk devolving power to a different set of politicians, but not necessarily making the vital shift that is needed in the way in which such things are dealt with, bringing this power closer to peoples lives.