Devolution in East Anglia

Summary

Policy shambles following the Budget 2016, and rising opposition to the Government’s plans for a mayor for East Anglia.

There’s a petition doing the rounds on Parliament’s website calling for Parliament to reject the Government’s proposals on devolution for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/124849

“What’s the deal all about?”

You can read the deal at http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/documents/s33604/Appendix%201b%20-%20The%20East%20Anglia%20Devolution%20Agreement.pdf

Essentially it creates a new tier of government with the aim of improving infrastructure by taking powers and spending from ministers – according to Communities Secretary Greg Clark in his letter to the people of Cambridge – whose council has already rejected the deal in its current format. See Cllr Lewis Herbert’s letter here.

“Why the opposition?”

The main reasons put forward by various people, parties and groups against the deal are as follows:

  • The geographical area is too large for a total amount of funding that is too small over such a long period of time to deliver anything more than half a motorway through the region
  • The current deal ignores Cambridgeshire’s western (towards Oxford), northern (towards the midlands) and southern (towards London) links
  • We don’t need an expanded state with another tier of decision makers. People in rural areas already have a parish council, district council, county council, an MP and MEPs – why do they need to add to it?
  • The Coalition scrapped Labour’s last attempt at regional government – with the East of England regional assembly (Do you remember this?) going under Eric Pickles’ cuts – see his statement here from 2010 when he was Communities Secretary (And Dr Clark was a minister in his department).
  • The timescales in which this policy has been developed is too rushed, has had little public debate, has had no public consultation. Due process as far as sound open policy making is concerned has not been followed.
  • The inclusion of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire is party-political. The repeated failure by the Conservatives to succeed electorally inside Cambridge City means that the only way they can get their hands on the city is through this process – and the prospect of ‘Mayor Andrew Lansley’ will horrify many people who do not identify as Conservatives and/or who opposed Lansley’s controversial NHS reforms or his controversial policies on lobbying politicians. (How Lansley was trailed as a favourite in the mainstream media is a mystery to most people).

I’ll leave the party politicians to argue over Lansley – but also note the fallout at the Local Government Association that Cambridgeshire Times editor John Elworthy uncovered.

My main issue with the plans is the lack of due process – as I explain in this freedom of information request to the Government. The lack of care and attention in the main document that has ***not*** been widely circulated speaks volumes. For the creation of such a high profile post, I would expect to see a formal policy publication – such as a green paper – inviting the public to comment on the Government’s proposals. This we have not had. Indeed – the devolution offer until recently has been directed at ‘northern powerhouse’ areas – see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/radical-shake-up-of-power-puts-communities-in-control

“Is this getting bogged down in politics as Claire Ruskin of the Cambridge Network says?”

If it is, it’s because of the way ministers have handled this entire process. (Note Mrs Ruskin’s comments at http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Business-chief-warns-devolution-getting-bogged/story-28964695-detail/story.html.

“I’d like to keep emphasising that there are some good parts to the offer and that we should be considering it objectively not politically,” said Mrs Ruskin.

Are there some good parts in it? Anything that is ‘new money’ to be spent on transport and infrastructure in the region inevitably is. But where I disagree with Mrs Ruskin is that the devolution of political power – including spending and planning powers – is inherently political. Giving an individual the powers to make decisions on spending taxpayers’ money and on planning and infrastructure issues is a political action.

You cannot take the politics out of it. Where you draw the boundaries on where the new mayoral post begins and ends is inherently political. Look at how politically polarised Cambridge is with its surrounding neighbours. The Conservatives have only one councillor on Cambridge City Council, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are barely represented on South Cambridgeshire and East Cambridgeshire district councils. Whether you run with a regional mayor, or go with (as is my preference) a unitary authority for Cambridge and its surrounding villages, the decision either way is a political one.

Ministers have not prepared the ground with councillors – they have selectively briefed audiences which always ends badly

The lack of transparency is alarming with this policy. Ministers have not created that open playing field where everyone – councillors included – have had access to the same information at the same time. That would have allowed councillors and campaign groups to examine the proposals collectively. For example the Haverhill Rail Campaign would have been very interested in a well-put-together case that links up Cambridge with Suffolk towns and villages. But by rushing their proposals, potential supporters have been missed. Instead, ministers have alienated the public unnecessarily and created the impression that they are trying to cover up their proposals or create a new role for a party political friend. Accordingly, all of the non-Conservative parties on Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Council have publicly stated that they oppose the Government’s proposals.

Shire Hall votes

Cambridgeshire County Council will vote on a motion at full council on 22 March at Shire Hall. This will be followed by what’s likely to be a formality at the Guildhall when Cambridge City Council approves of Cllr Herbert’s actions for Labour – scroll to the end of this document for the motion.

I have a tabled public question at each of the above-mentioned meetings…watch this space!

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4 Responses to Devolution in East Anglia

  1. “Anything that is ‘new money’ to be spent on transport and infrastructure in the region inevitably is.”

    But, it is, as you note, peanuts. This is not serious devolution. This is devolution of powers without the cash to pay for any decisions – a theme with this government.

    Even the suggestion of retaining local rates has disappeared from the conversation.

  2. Steve Fulton says:

    First line of the Devolution Agreement : “Implementation of this agreement is subject to the completion of the statutory processes and approval of all local authorities which are party to the deal.”

    I assume this means that Cambridge City Council have the ability to block this?
    And Norwich City Council, which has no Conservatives on it.

  3. Also, how does this affect the Greater Cambridge City Deal, which offers more money for a smaller area on a shorter timescale? The last two chunks of funding are conditional: what are the chances the government will impose tougher checks on projects because they have already committed via the wider region, seeing an opportunity to cut projected spending after they have announced it?

    Norfolk and Suffolk have been in talks a lot longer. Cambridgeshire seems to have been added on as an afterthought. Are Norfolk and Suffolk really content to see the deal they’ve worked on diverted to the west? What are the chances that Cambridgeshire takes the lion’s share if this goes ahead?

  4. Sandy Lyle says:

    I am not sure the decision to include Cambridge is about getting party political control of Cambridge. Its much more that the whole thing doesn’t make sense unless you put Cambridge’s money, business and influence at the middle of it. Cambridge City may reasonably ask what’s in it for them, and I suspect the answer is that there is less for them than the other local authorities. However its not as trivial an amount of money as you might think because it would be possible to borrow against the guaranteed income, so there would be the possibility of a cash injection of 500-700 million

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