A former local government ombudsman has launched a withering attack on two councils’ consultation over a North Yorkshire devolution deal.
Local government expert Anne Seex raised a litany of questions over the quality and results of the eight-week exercise to assess public support for a mayoral combined authority and government funding deal negotiated by City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council.
However, a meeting of the county council’s executive heard just a single concern raised about the consultation’s mixed findings – that the deal could lead to an increase in bureaucracy – with numerous members instead expressing their excitement about the potential benefits of devolution.
Ex-ombudsman Mrs Seex told the meeting it was clear that those who took part in the consultation exercise in North Yorkshire had seen “more disadvantages than advantages” to the deal.
While the council has claimed “widespread support” for the devolution deal, Mrs Seex said online responses to the consultation amounted to just 0.3% of the electorate, which she described as a “pitifully small” sample.
She said advice from the Consultation Institute it had employed to help run the consultation that the consultation had been good was “a case of a private company marking its own homework”.
Mrs Seex told the meeting:
“The exercise that you have undertaken is better described as marketing.
“The information to the public was purely promotional and omitted important contextual information about the scheme, such as the only directly elected position would be the mayor, that York city would have three times the representation of North Yorkshire with two members for 200,000-plus people and North Yorkshire having two members for 600,000-plus people.”
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She said the powers of elected councillors on the York and North York authorities would be “sucked up” by the mayoral combined authority, rather than being devolved down.
Mrs Seex said the combined authority was set to be allowed to call in planning applications and make decisions against local views, while the funding attached to the deal was £200 million less than the two councils had asked for, and that government funding could not be relied on and could be subject to reviews.
“The funding amounts to £222 per person per year while council spending across the North has been reduced by £431 per person per year.”
She added most of the powers being trumpeted as being given to the combined authority were already in the hands of the councils.
Mrs Seex said the consultation results provided no breakdown of how York and North Yorkshire residents had responded and that it was crucial that elected community representatives across the county were aware of how their residents had responded to the exercise.
James Farrar, chief officer of North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, which helped run the consultation, said the structure and content of the consultation had been shared with government officials before being launched and that details of the full devolution deal had been shared with the public.
“This was not a consultation on the relative merits of devolution. We were consulting on the scheme.
“The scheme sets out how the devolution deal will be implemented, it was therefore important we focus on the key elements in the scheme.”
Mr Farrar added the Consultation Institute had been employed due its experience in helping authorities examine support for devolution deals.
He said the ultimate decision over whether the authorities had met legal requirements lay with the councils and it would be for the government to assess the suitability of the consultation.
Cllr Carl Les, leader of the council, said the executive would forego its power to send the results of the consultation to the government for consideration, and instead invite all the authority’s elected members to voice their views at a meeting later this month.
He said he was delighted the authority had reached a position where it could progress towards achieving beneficial devolution deals, such as the one in neighbouring Teesside, and a point where North Yorkshire and York would have a more powerful voice.