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Peak Brexit: Taking back control in Derbyshire

shutterstock 1151200118 derby dales
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As a cradle of the industrial revolution, the Derbyshire Dales have a proud and outward looking history. Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, which pioneered the use of water power on the banks of the Derwent, is considered the first modern factory, setting a blueprint for manufacturing and the broader division of labour globally.

The EU referendum result in Derbyshire Dales DC was almost identical to the split nationally with just under 52% voting to leave. LGC visited the area’s main town, Matlock, to assess the views of local politicians and residents on the impact of Brexit. Could it herald an Arkwright-esque spirit of entrepreneurialism and industrial innovation, intensifying the area’s global prestige? And, if Brexit was an indication of discontent with politics more broadly, how can its councils empower residents?

“If you go out there and speak to folks, there’s a frustration that the job is not being done in Westminster and, more fundamentally, they just need to have that clarity for their businesses that this will get over the line,” says Barry Lewis (Con), Derbyshire CC’s leader. “People understand that we voted to leave the European Union in 2016 on the 29 March this year but here we still are.”

 

 

Cllr Lewis says the county is proactively avoiding becoming inward, listing his council’s contacts with China, Japan and Germany. “We’re making the most of all of these opportunities and trying to show the world that Derbyshire, through mechanisms like the lep [D2N2 local enterprise partnership] and Midlands Engine, is open to the rest of the world,” he says.

barry lewis

barry lewis

Barry Lewis

The county’s Japanese links stem from its Toyota factory in Burnaston, which was in March announced as the manufacturer of hybrid cars for Suzuki. “Despite all the Brexit issues they’ve continued to invest in Derbyshire,” says Cllr Lewis.

He now envisages the Beijing government’s Belt and Road development strategy, through which the country is seeking to invest in infrastructure projects around the world, as a means to “build a link between ourselves and China”. Derbyshire participated in a 2017 Midlands Engine trade delegation led by Sajid Javid which visited the country’s Anhui province, with which it has cultivated a relationship.

“It’s a region that, for the want of a better term, we are twinned with,” says Cllr Lewis.

“They view the cultural and civic links as being the first thing to establish before you get down to developing those business links.” He places tourism – and the Peak District’s status as Britain’s first national park – at the heart of Derbyshire’s strategy. “First and foremost, it’s us shouting about ourselves as a county – we’re here, we’re open for business, we are a great place to come to live and to stay,” he says.

 

 

Cllr Lewis says he backed Brexit, although he was not “massively vociferous” about it. Across town at Derbyshire Dales DC, his district counterpart as leader Lewis Rose (Con) diplomatically says he is “of the view that we have to respect the democratic decision”, when asked whether he supports EU withdrawal. He “couldn’t begin to guess” whether local residents would support a second referendum.

lewis rose

lewis rose

Lewis Rose

Speaking in advance of his council’s all-out local elections on 2 May, Cllr Rose expresses concern his Conservative group could lose its 17-seat majority as a result of Brexit dissatisfaction if people voted on national issues. It was subsequently returned with a majority of one. “I think people are reasonably happy at a local level, but unhappy about what happens at a national level. On the doorstep we are getting a lot of criticism about what’s happening in Parliament,” he says. This threatened to overshadow the council’s “good record, careful management and success saving money”, as well as the “good comments about refuse collection”.

Planning was the other big local issue on the doorstep – and the population often felt that on this issue they were far from taking back control, according to Cllr Rose. He expresses dismay about how the Planning Inspectorate had overruled council decisions, that would have prevented developments in Brailsford and Ashbourne.

“We are being dictated to by the planning inspectorate. People see that decisions are actually not local – planning is the most obvious one,” he says. “It’s a very special area – it’s very pretty – it’s visited by many who appreciate its beauty and open spaces, it’s a very nice spot. People want to keep it green.”

Back at County Hall, Labour group leader Anne Western agrees there is much discontent locally with Theresa May’s administration. “People have a right to expect a competent government to deliver what it says it would deliver,” says Cllr Western, who lost control to the Conservatives in 2017. “People are disgusted about what they see with parliamentary procedures and behaviour. That feeds into a process of disempowerment and frustration.

“I do think devolution is part of the answer. But this government doesn’t have an approach to devolution. It feels like we’re in limbo and nothing works [in government] any more. We don’t have a devolution framework around which we could have that debate.”

Even she can empathise with Cllr Lewis’s capacity to deliver the services Derbyshire residents seek: “Barry’s politics and mine are very different – his priorities are not my priorities. But I have a degree of sympathy with him and his cabinet colleagues as they struggle with the same funding problems we faced. I don’t think there’s a lot that anybody can do at the moment.” However, she pours scorn on Cllr Lewis’s plan to use volunteers to keep libraries open: “I don’t think he grasps the fact that people who are minded to volunteer are already busy with a lot of other things.”

Cllr Lewis tells LGC the libraries plan was “about thinking outside of the box – not accepting that we have to make draconian cuts”, despite the expectation another £63m needs to be saved over the next five years. It is part of the broader Enterprising Council approach which seeks to make services more responsive, commercially minded and – in a nod to Wigan MBC’s The Deal – proposes to empower the population rather than merely supply services.

The leader describes the initiative as a “deep dive across all of our services”. It was launched in January after a Local Government Association peer review carried out in October last year found the council was inward looking, even if its finances and reserves are in relatively good shape.

 

 

“We need to be a less paternalistic provider. We need communities to do much more – our role is much more facilitating than it is providing in some instances,” says Cllr Lewis. As part of this, the council has launched Thriving Communities, which seeks to unlock the capacity of local people to help themselves. The programme is beginning in the former pit town of Shirebrook, in Bolsover DC (leave vote 70.8%), which has high unemployment and significant health inequalities.

LGC asks whether Thriving Communities can be linked to the Brexit desire to ‘take back control’? “It’s a key mechanism for addressing that vacuum for communities where they feel there’s a lack of opportunity or a lack of decent environment about them that can empower them,” responds Cllr Lewis. “We can only do so much, but we must do whatever we can and Thriving Communities is critical to that.”

The chiefless council’s head of paid service, Emma Alexander, says the approach “is inspired by a desire to move away from a deficit-based local government model to one where we maximise potential through the development of positive human relationships”.

Ms Alexander, strategic director of commissioning, communities and policy, adds: “We are shifting from ‘doing to’ to ‘working with’.” “The essence of Thriving Communities is locality collaboration – creative, dynamic, cross council and cross partner forums working with communities to develop a shared understanding of need at a community level, identifying key issues and challenges, practical problem solving and the sharing of learning.”

She says it is hoped the Shirebrook example will demonstrate how “place based approaches that focus on people’s aspirations could drive national policy”. Derbyshire is also championing ‘non-structural reform’ with its districts in a bid to invigorate the performance of local services and reduce areas of duplication. Cllr Lewis says he would rather seek a countywide unitary but this is currently politically off limits.

“The other key problem around Brexit is that it’s a massive distraction to government and they aren’t dealing with the business of local authorities. There’s no clarity what it is the government wants from local authorities, or clarity in terms of a key statement from whatever secretary of state it may be that this is how we want local government to look in the future.”

Cllr Lewis criticises the government’s “sort it out yourselves” attitude to structure, adding, with regards to districts that would face abolition: “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas at the end of the day.” He insists a county unitary with a population approaching 800,000 was not incompatible with ‘taking back control’, describing such a size as “healthy and sustainable”. He would seek parish councils to become stronger “and a bit more connected to local people” in any theoretical unitary.

Cllr Lewis is more optimistic of a breakthrough on devolution, through the strategic alliance of his county, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire CCs, and local unitary councils. “Devolution of power to the nation, that’s one of the key things when you talk about Brexit – it’s about being masters of our own fate.”

The local viewpoint

“I will never vote again.” So says a shopkeeper who refused to give her name, “for fear of repercussions”, when LGC asks about Brexit. “I feel disillusioned. I won’t vote in local elections.” She adds of councillors: “I don’t like any of them. They all promise the earth.”

However, conversations with Matlock’s shoppers suggest the widespread scepticism of politics has not significantly tarnished perceptions of local government. Retiree Derek Holmes voted in favour of Brexit but says the whole thing is “getting on my nerves”. “When it comes on the news I change the channel,” he says. “I don’t understand why they can’t have done with it.”

However, he is enthusiastic about the local elections, stating “Derbyshire Dales do a good job”, even if he couldn’t “see much the county council are doing”. He says of the district elections: “One of the candidates lives a few hundred yards away. I know he’s good for local people. I know he looks after my interests. Anything that wants doing he gets done.”

Retired foundry worker Graham Wilson describes Brexit as “a bit of a tangled mess” but says he would vote in the local elections. He says of his council: “They have done pretty well around here.”

LGC visited on the day of a School Strike for Climate protest in the centre of town. The students speak of the power of local politics. Emily Bush, 17, urges “local councillors to do something” to help thwart climate change, including reducing emissions across the county and raising awareness of the issue among the local population.

She laments that “Brexit seems to be the priority of the government”. And Emma Lemon, 18, says local politicians could be “part of the answer” by declaring a climate change emergency. Asked to explain her identity, she says: “I would say Derbyshire, then European, then British.”

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