Leaders: Devolution deal will bring power closer to home
Suffolk’s council leaders say devolution would not only see millions of pounds flow into the region, but offer East Anglia the chance to shape its future - away from the grasp of Westminster.
A public consultation on the Norfolk and Suffolk devolution deal is now underway and runs until Tuesday August 23, giving the public the chance to have their say on the big plans.
The proposals would see a combined authority created with a directly elected mayor and would include £25 million of funding for the next 30 years for economic growth and job creation, £100 million over five years for the building of new homes and would give the authority control of a £225 million transport budget spread over four years.
In addition, the Combined Authority will receive £30 million over five years split between Ipswich Borough and Norwich City councils for house building.
Every Suffolk council has given a thumbs up to the devolution deal although four Norfolk councils - Breckland, Norwich, North Norfolk and Great Yarmouth - have decided to ditch the plans for the time being.
Colin Noble, Leader of Suffolk County Council, said he was fully behind the devolution deal.
“When I talk to people out and about lots of people raise issues with me and I have to say to them ‘that’s not controlled by local government, that is controlled by central government’,” he said.
“Devolution will bring more decision making on the things that affect your and my lives being made locally rather than in Westminster. “Sometimes I have to go to Whitehall and talk about funding for the county and you are sitting down with people who have never been to our part of the world.
“We know the roads, we know the bottle-necks, the problems with railways, the problems with getting doctors appointments. If you make decisions more locally you make better decisions - that is at the heart of it.”
Leader of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, Cllr John Griffiths, agreed saying it would give the region the chance to truly decide its own future. “It’s an exciting chance to do things for people in Suffolk and Norfolk rather than a faceless bureaucracy in London.
“Borders don’t stop anywhere, we work very closely with both Norfolk, our fellow councils, businesses and people throughout Suffolk and of course Cambridgeshire and other parts of East Anglia.
“So what is good for Norfolk is good for Suffolk and good for Cambridgeshire so its important we get the monies and infrastructure changes, the support and decision taking abilities with people who can deliver those things best and know the area best.
“It’s about shaping change to make sure we get the best possible outcome for the people we serve here.”
Cllr James Waters, leader of Forest Heath District Council, said central government couldn’t possibly know the best for our county, that people who live in the area are best equipped to guide decision making.
He said: “Here’s an opportunity to turn round and say we can do so much more if you give us the tools to do it because every time we try to do something we end up banging our heads against red tape.
“With all due respect to the people in Westminster how could they have the understanding that we have on the ground day in day out?
“They are in that Westminster bubble running the country as a whole and all we want is the power and the tools to be able to utilise and get stuff in place at the right time for the people that we serve.
“I am convinced devolution is the way forward. It’s the only game in town.
“Some people think this is another layer of bureaucracy. It is not, it is a new tier of government taking away powers from Whitehall and delivering locally.
“You are taking away from Westminster and bringing it to East Anglia.”
The devolution deal stresses that there is no intention to take powers away from existing local authorities.
If the deal goes through, the first elections for the mayor would take place in May 2017.
The money provided to the combined authority would be split between capital and revenue.
Cllr Nick Gowrley, leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, said this would give it the ability to make the money go even further.
“It can also be seen as seeding funding,” he said.
“If there is a big investment going into a project it should bring additional funding from other parties.
“The New Anglia LEP are involved in the deal so they are the business side of this.
“Devolution will give us the ability to prioritise what happens in the area.
“If it is done in Whitehall we are not making these decisions. Devolution will give the region control over where the money is spent.”
Nick said the Combined Authority could work around the Norfolk councils that didn’t join - with hope they would change their minds later.
“We will work round it,” he said. “At the moment they are not in but may decide to come in later as they see the benefits of it.
“It is a shame they take that view.
“We will need to try to keep them in the loop though.
“It is not a case of us and them, it’s about Norfolk and Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia working together.
“We want to work with them, that’s what it is all about.”
Concerns have been raised at council meetings at the proposed appointment of a directly elected Mayor.
Questions on how much power the mayor will have, where their focus will lie, and whether the public can readily boot them out of office if they don’t perform well have popped up regularly.
Cllr Griffiths wanted to put the public’s mind at rest, saying this was not a case of another ‘Boris’.
He said: “First of all this is very much a government desire – if you like it is a quid pro quo for us to have devolution. Having said that, first of all the mayor would be directly elected so people would have the right to vote and to get rid of them.
“Secondly, the way we have structured the proposal the mayor is actually more of a chairman of the board, the first among equals if you like, rather than an authoritarian mayor.
“Somebody does need to look across all the borders who is also accountable.
“So if, for example, West Suffolk wasn’t getting what it needed to do these things you would know who to hold accountable to do that and you would have a vote to making sure he or she delivered it.
“I don’t think the mayoralty as such is a popular thing with the councillors or the people out there however if you look at it as having somebody who is chairing a group of elected representatives who is accountable to the people he or she is supposed to be serving that is not as frightening.
“It doesn’t increase the bureaucracy it removes bureaucracy from London and moves the power to East Anglia and therefore the areas we live and care about.”
Cllr Waters added: There’s no organisation that doesn’t have someone sitting at the top, whether its a head teacher, a council leader. You need someone there.”