Old Mother Shropshire went to the government to get the county a grant. When she went there the cupboard was bare. So the poor county got none.
(Misremembered old nursery rhyme).

On Wednesday Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up – he used to be Secretary of State for Growing Up – published the long awaited Levelling Up white paper. There is every hint that this policy paper was rushed out to distract from the ongoing tribulations of the prime minister. It includes paragraphs copied and pasted from Wikipedia. It mentions Jericho three times, ancient Rome twice and modern day Shropshire just once. It also mentions Byzantine, which might be a good description of the white paper.

The exclusion of Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin from Levelling Up funding has led to both councils making protests to the government. Michael Gove has responded to Shropshire saying we would need a mayor covering both councils before he will allocate any money. Shropshire Council’s leader has rejected this. It is another example of how Westminster politicians profess to support giving more power to local areas, while dictating how they operate democratically.

Levelling Up is a bad white paper from a government obsessed with the struggles of the prime minister and not the struggles of counties outside the South East.

Michael Gove must have rued the timeslot allocated for him to present his Levelling Up white paper. I am sure he would have hoped for front page headlines on most of the dailies the next morning. But even as he spoke, media attention was turning to the announcement the next day on the energy price cap and what the chancellor might do to mitigate the increase as retail prices soar and taxes increase. Levelling Up coverage ended up being squeezed into a narrow gap between Partygate and the cost of living crisis.

Perhaps this long promised white paper was rushed out to distract media attention from the crisis facing Boris Johnson’s leadership. It certainly reads as though it was cobbled together, even plagiarised.

Those looking for a potted (and blinkered) history of urbanisation might wish to peruse Chapter 1 in the full report to learn about Jericho, Constantinople and Rome. Or they could look at Wikipedia instead from where much of this part of the white paper has been copied and pasted. As a former Education Secretary, Michael Gove should be appalled at this plagiarism from Wikipedia without attribution. And shouldn’t he be using Encyclopaedia Britannica to show his true post-Brexit colours?

The section on Shropshire can be found on page 291 of the full report. A graphic titled “The West Midlands on the global stage” has three words: “Project Gigabit: Shropshire.” That’s all there is.

This should not have been a surprise as the Levelling Up white paper offers no new money. But Ed Potter, Shropshire Council’s Deputy Leader and cabinet member for economic growth publicly complained:

“Shropshire Council is very disappointed that today’s announcements, as part of the Levelling Up White Paper, do not include any specific announcements for investment in the county… Once again, Shropshire has been overlooked and has missed out, and at the moment we feel overlooked, unrecognised, taken for granted and completely undervalued.”

Ed Potter and the council’s cabinet need to look to themselves for this constant failure to attract investment into Shropshire. The cabinet and the economic team have been obsessed with environmentally destructive projects like the North West Relief Road and have yet to develop a coherent vision for the county’s future. The same might be said for our county’s MPs.

Perhaps then we should have an elected mayor as Michael Gove desires. I don’t think that is a good idea. There is always a desire by politicians to centralise power while generating headline grabbing initiatives and photo opportunities. That suits their ambitions and egos but does not necessarily deliver the most effective governance of local areas.

We have seen this centralising trend already in Shropshire over the last two decades. The district councils were gobbled up to form the Shropshire Council in 2009. In the first few years of the council, we heard a lot about the “strong leader” model of governance, only for it to become apparent to all that the council’s leadership was weak. For a period, decisions were made in private portfolio holder sessions, where the cabinet officer would sit and debate the issue with themselves, with the press and public excluded.

One of the lures offered to councillors in the former districts was the establishment of Local Joint Committees (LJCs). Despite the clunky name, there were often effective forums in which to discuss and hone opinions on local issues. Shropshire Council first withdrew all funding from the LJCs, then administrative support and finally it closed them down. Shropshire Council has proved that it only pays lip service to local views.

The cabinet has been working to cut public participation in council meetings. It clearly finds public questions a nuisance. It has limited their number, banned supplementary questions and is hoping to restrict the scope of questions further. Yet, it won’t introduce written questions and answers which would allow more detailed probing of the council’s policies and actions.

The scrutiny system on Shropshire Council has also failed. The council leader will only allow Conservatives to chair the scrutiny committees which are meant to scrutinise the actions of the council leadership. The chairs cannot act independently. Scutiny does not act effectively.

If we move to an elected mayor, it is going to be more difficult to hold decision makers to account. There will be a mayoral office with all the associated costs. It will be a repeat of David Cameron’s madcap idea of Police and Crime Commissioners.

Shropshire should go the other way. Shropshire Council should scrap its ineffectual cabinet. It’s no secret that everything is agreed in private before the cabinet meeting and the meetings do no more than rubber stamp decisions already made in the shadows of Shirehall and the gloom of Zoom. Shropshire Council should return to the committee system and distribute committee chairs according to the political balance of the elected councillors.

It’s time to sweep away the tired thinking that dominates Shropshire Council. We need to refresh the way the council works. What we don’t need is an elected mayor overseeing a combine authority of Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin.

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