This morning I was at the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel (I bet you didn't know this thing existed, did you) meeting. It was not edifying and, besides meeting a candidate for Britain's rudest councillor, I also found myself making common cause with a Green councillor from Huddersfield on the issue of democratic accountability.
This matters. It really does matter. And the system local leaders want (even the ones in Greater Manchester who reluctantly accepted an elected mayor so long has he was so hogtied as to be effectively powerless) is, as Green Cllr Andrew Cooper observed, 'a authority of the elected not an elected authority'. What these leaders (and all but two in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire are Labour leaders) are arguing for is the devolution of 'powers' - unspecified powers - to 'combined authorities' made up of those same leaders meeting together.
At the same meeting the chair - who is the Conservative leader of Calderdale Council - made the observation that he wasn't party to discussions at the Labour leaders' meeting prior to the main Combined Authority Board. In simple terms the decisions about millions of pounds of public money are being made in private by four men. For sure us scrutineers can look at what those four men have decided - we did that today with the 'Budget and Business Plan' for the Combined Authority - but it is essentially futile.
Everywhere I look there are meetings, workshops, gatherings and high profile boondoggles looking at 'devolving power to cities'. My in-box is stuffed (OK I exaggerate a tad here) with the brain-numbing output of think-tanks, conferences, academics and the grander sort of politician - all sreaming for devolving powers to cities. The excitement is palpable, almost sexual in its intensity. Dear reader you need to know why these folk are excited and you really couldn't give a toss - it is important. And you should give a toss.
Firstly these people - business 'leaders', senior council officers, management consultants, leaders of 'city' authorities and so forth - can see the opportunity to get their mitts on a whole pile of government cash without having those annoying, interfering local councillors asking difficult questions about what it's spent on or how it will help the people who elect those pesky councillors. I know, I know, the grand folk pushing city 'devolution' tell us it's accountable because of those four Labour leaders meeting in private somewhere in Leeds. I mean they're elected aren't they?
Well yes. Those leaders are elected. But they aren't elected to decide on policy and strategy for the whole of West Yorkshire (or Greater Manchester or South Yorkshire). There is nothing in the mandate given to those leaders by the electorates of Wibsey, Castleford, Heckmondwike and Kippax that creates sufficient authority or accountability to justify the devolution of further powers to a 'combined authority'. To create such an authority with the powers that leaders - and that circling flock of vultures I described above eyeing up a slice of the cash - want is to build even less democratic accountability into local government.
So, dear readers, you need to stop with the 'we don't need more politicians' nonsense and understand that unless you elect people directly to make decisions on your behalf, you make it harder to hold the decision-makers to account. And you need to tell your councillor and your MP that devolution is all fine and dandy, an absolutely spiffing idea, but only if the spending of that public money is subject to your accountability through the tried and tested method of having the chance to vote the bastards out if you don't like them.
Put simply, devolution without democratic accountability - without a directly elected mayor or council or assembly - isn't devolution but business as usual for the people who have sucked the nation dry over the past couple of decades. This isn't devolution but the great and good ramming their arms up to the elbow into the lucky dip of public funds - not for your benefit but for theirs.