“Tens of thousands haven’t had their voices heard!” Lincolnshire devolution consultation’s ‘slanted’ questions slammed
Lincolnshire’s ambitious devolution deal, promising £24 million annually for 30 years and a regional mayor, has hit a snag with its public consultation process.
Despite Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) and its partners in North and North East Lincolnshire heralding over 4,000 survey completions as a success, critics argue the figure barely scratches the surface of public opinion.
The consultation’s “slanted” questions have drawn ire from some district leaders, suggesting an attempt to skew results in favour of the devolution deal.
With a population of over 1 million, the mere 0.365% participation rate has raised eyebrows, casting doubt on the consultation’s effectiveness in capturing the true sentiment of Greater Lincolnshire residents.
As LCC processes the last of the paper questionnaires, anticipation builds for an independent analysis set to shed light on the public’s stance.
Yet, the low engagement has already sparked calls for a more direct approach to gauging public interest in devolution.
Greater Lincolnshire’s devolution deal, agreed by Lincolnshire County Council (LCC), North and North East Lincolnshire Council, promises some £24 million in funding for the county, every year for three decades, as well as the election of a mayor for the region.
Coun Anne Dorrian of Boston Borough Council criticises the consultation’s methodology, suggesting a referendum on devolution would have been a more transparent and democratic starting point.
As the county awaits the detailed report’s findings, questions linger over the future direction of Lincolnshire’s devolution journey and the legitimacy of its public consultation process.
“Politics is all about conviction, principles and belief,” Coun Dorrian said.
“If Martin Hill [Conservative, Leader of Lincolnshire County Council] wanted to stand behind an elected mayor, then he should have the courage in those convictions to allow a straight yes or no referendum.
“If you ask the public if they’d like £24 million a year for 30 years then it sounds great, doesn’t it?
“I think politicians are there to represent the wishes of their constituents, not to pursue their own personal ambitions, and I worry that the wishes of Lincolnshire residents have been lost.
“There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, who haven’t had their voices heard.
“We had 7,500 people at Boston Market Place for the Christmas lights switch on. I can’t help but think if the county council had teams out there with clipboards asking about devolution, they might have had a different outcome.”
Coun Dorrian went on to say the consultation questions were “very slanted towards a particular outcome,” saying it sought to achieve a result that was “desired” by Lincolnshire County Council.
“I heavily encouraged local people to complete the consultation, and I am sure county council tried their best, while district leaders also encouraged people to get involved,” she added.
“But it’s very unfair and I am disappointed with the way it was designed.
“I had feedback from very articulate and intelligent local residents who told me they were shocked at how biased the questions were.
“One person even told me they stopped completing the survey because they were afraid of filling the survey incorrectly, as they were so against devolution.”
The Boston Borough Council leader’s criticism of the devolution deal has stung county council leader Martin Hill, who she accused of “personal revenge” as no funding was allocated to Boston in the council’s six-point £20 million funding wishlist for capital funding of projects in Lincolnshire.
This was echoed by City of Lincoln Council leader Ric Metcalfe (Labour) at the local authority’s full council meeting in January, where he described the consultation as “a bit of a sham.”
He argued: “It doesn’t include the question of do you want this devolution deal at all? It’s not asking any first order question, but simply stating this is the deal and do you think it will bring these benefits?”
However, Coun Metcalfe did not add to these comments when asked by reporters following the conclusion of the consultation period.
That’s not directly linked with Lincoln getting £3.3 million from the first devolution investment capital fund for the Trans Midlands Trade Corridor, which includes Nettleham Roundabout, called a “significant constraint” on the A46 route from Humber ports to the West Midlands.
Further funded improvements include resurfacing on Carholme Road, Newland and Freeman Road.
West Lindsey District Council leader Trevor Young (Liberal Democrat), has also taken aim at the consultation, saying it “completely missed the mark in terms of gaining a fair, accurate and proportionate view of residents.”
“I share concerns around the timing of the survey and also the content. I’m certain the vast majority of people do not want to go down the route of having an elected mayor, which would do nothing but add another layer of bureaucracy, however it is reluctantly acknowledged that this is a government requirement of the devolution deal,” he said.
“In this context I consider it important to restate that the council objects to any additional cost being levied on residents as a result of the new Mayoral Combined Authority and is also against any form of local government reorganisation.”
Yet Lincolnshire County Council said that it has been “independently assured” that the consultation process undertaken was appropriate and fair.
A spokesperson for the county council said: “As part of government legislation, we have been required to undertake a full public consultation on our devolution proposal so that the views of residents, businesses and organisations can be considered and incorporated if needed.
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“We have been independently assured that the public consultation we have carried out is appropriate and meets the requirements set out.”
It isn’t just opposition parties who have expressed concerns over the devolution consultation, though, with veteran Member of Parliament for Gainsborough Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative) arguing the questions were “artfully phrased in order to obtain the result desired by those who have crafted it.”
This was documented in an open letter sent to Lincolnshire County Council, in which the Gainsborough MP said the consultation offered “no opportunity for members of the public to write in to give or explain their views.”
This was put to council leader Martin Hill and the economic development and environment portfolio holder Coun Colin Davie after January’s Executive meeting, who were both quick to dismiss Sir Edward’s claims.
Coun Hill assured the MP and the wider Lincolnshire population that the authority had “been very careful” and consulted “strong advice” from government departments on how to maximise the scope of the consultation.
“We are making sure that we do go to those seldom heard people,” he said at the time, referencing the drop-in sessions across the county after Sir Edward Leigh’s claims that some sections of the community could be “discriminated against” by being unable to take part in consultation if they are not internet savvy.
Coun Davie went a step further, saying that while he has “a great deal of time” for the Gainsborough MP, he felt Sir Edward was “totally wrong” to suggest this and that it could actually be “time for a change” in the constituency at the next general election.
“Maybe he’s been around too long, maybe it’s time for a change, too,” Colin Davie said.
“I think (devolution) gives us that opportunity to plough our own furrow better, as they say, and the public don’t mind paying for things if they know what the money is going to be spent on, number one, and number two, that it’s not going to be wasted by a load of bureaucrats.”