Devolution for Cambridgeshire – Council rejects Government offer

ccc17:21 Tuesday 22nd March 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: The plan for a devolution deal for East Anglia has been dealt a severe blow this evening, as County councillors rejected the current agreement. A deal joining Cambridgeshire with Norfolk and Suffolk was announced by the Chancellor in last week’s Budget, but there’s concern about how much it would actually benefit our county. Our political reporter Hannah Olsson has been at Shire Hall watching events take place, and she joins us now. Hannah.
HANNAH OLLSSON: Good evening Chris. Yes this evening’s debate centred around a proposal from the Opposition councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council to reject this devolution deal in its current form. We had a long debate lasting more than two hours, with councillors raising concerns about the speed in which this deal has been rushed through, the amount of money that’s being promised, initially just £30 million a year, and fundamentally whether Norfolk and Suffolk are the right bedfellows for the County. There was considerable criticism of the Chancellor, with the Leader of the Labour Party on the Council Ashley Walsh saying we’re being forced into a shotgun wedding, and George Osborne hadn’t even got the decency to take us out for dinner. Now Lucy Nethsingha, who’s the Leader of the LibDems here on the CountY Council suggested this deal was dreamt up on the back of a cigar packet. Now a key part of the proposal is a regional mayor leading this joint authority. There were also questions about how much this mayor will cost, and also whether someone representing such a large area could make the right decisions for Cambridgeshire.
CHRIS MANN: So that’s those who are opposing the deal. Are there any supporting it?
HANNAH OLSSON: Well 64 out of the 65 councillors that are here today voted for this current deal to be rejected. Of course that includes the Conservative councillors. So on the face of it, no, not for this deal. But a number of councillors, again mainly Conservative, said there were a number of positives in this agreement, and so we shouldn’t dismiss the idea outright. Councillor James Palmer, he said that the Council was being insular, and should look wider than Cambridgeshire, particularly on issues like improving our infrastructure. So it was a very long debate, lots of pros, lots against. So it’s not over yet, but it is for this deal.
CHRIS MANN: So what next?
HANNAH OLSSON: In short we don’t know. We’re in unprecedented territory here. I spoke to the Leader of the Council Steve Count a few moments ago, and he told me he’s now going to have to go back to the Government and try to renegotiate. But it’s worth remembering that previously the Government has said it was this deal or nothing. So we’re just going to have to wait and see just how much wriggle room there actually is. Now when the Chancellor announced the deal in his Budget last week, it has to be said he did imply it was a pretty done deal. So for the Government to have to climb down from that would be pretty embarrassing. The deadline for reaching an agreement is the end of June, so we’re far from the end of this devolution story.
CHRIS MANN: Yes, it could be of course a negotiating ploy Hannah, couldn’t it? The first offer’s not always the one you want to take.
HANNAH OLSSON: Yes, we just don’t know. When I’d spoken to both the Leaders they’ve all said it’s a matter of calling each other’s bluff. But we just don’t know. There is investment that’s being promised to the region of course, to the County here. And if the Government just said, alright then, if you don’t want it leave it, then potentially we could be losing out on that money. But Cambridge is saying we’ve got a lot to offer, we’ve got a lot to bring to the table in terms of this devolution. You’re not offering us enough, so take it or leave it. So they’re both at the moment calling each other’s bluff, and we just don’t know which way it’s going to go. In theory, the Government could force this on. In fact they could force us to have a regional mayor. But once again I think that would be very unpopular, so I don’t think we’re going to see us going down that route.
CHRIS MANN: Hannah Olsson, thank you.