Dissent on devolution for East Anglia

17:21 Thursday 17th March 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

The East Anglia Devolution Agreement

CHRIS MANN: It’s been twenty four hours since the Chancellor George Osborne used the Budget to unveil devolution plans for East Anglia, handing more powers to Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. There would be in his plans a single authority for East Anglia with an elected Mayor. The Communities Secretary Greg Clark has been visiting Huntingdon today. He’s been telling the BBC exactly how devolution would work for the county.
GREG CLARK: So on transport, of course if you’re building new homes, one of the problems in the past is that the homes have gone up, but often the transport has not been in improved, so the roads have got more congested. So what the council leaders have negotiated in this deal is a big fund, nearly a billion pounds,of money to be put in the hands of locals, to make sure that when homes are built for example, or indeed when new commercial premises are built, there can be investment in the roads, in the railways, to make sure that the area continues to flow. But also for housing, we know right across the area when jobs are being created, people do need to live close by them. And they want to get a home of their own. There has been a housing shortage, so there’s money specifically again, over £175 million, to invest over the next few years in more homes here, with local people taking those decisions. So it’s a big big transfer, from rather than decisions made way down in London, have those decisions made locally.
CHRIS MANN: Cambridge City Council is the only authority out of twenty two that doesn’t support the plans. Labour’s Lewis Herbert is the Council’s Leader.
LEWIS HERBERT: The money on the table is about £1 million per council per year, and that really isn’t going to make any difference. Our infrastructure needs hundreds of millions of pounds just for Cambridge. We’ve only had three weeks to actually make our case to Government. Not enough money, nothing for housing. A bit like the Budget, there’ll be nothing for lower income and middle income people needing housing.
CHRIS MANN: But the Communities Secretary Mr Clark hopes the Council will change its mind.
BBC: Let me just ask you just about the practicalities of that deal. Three counties, with Peterborough as well. Is it really practical to take that forward, when you don’t have the likes of Cambridge City and the Local Enterprise Partnership on board? Because without Cambridge, how can that really be of any meaning?
GREG CLARK: Well it’s early days, and certainly I hope that when the City of Cambridge considers the amount of investment that is open to them and to their residents, as well as Cambridgeshire and the other counties, that they will see that actually there’s great benefits for everyone there. And of course when it comes to the City of Cambridge, a fantastic global success, but a lot of the challenges, you know, benefits of success that Cambridge has, the challenges that it gives on housing for example, on transport congestion, on skills, a lot of the solutions are not just within the city limits. They go into their neighbouring areas. So that’s what this deal does. It brings everyone together, so you’ve got better transport, rail and road across the area, places that are able to train people to take up those jobs. And crucially housing for people, young people who want a home of their own, and can put down the roots here, or stay here if they’ve lived here.
CHRIS MANN: Well let’s hear from a senior local Conservative, the Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, Jason Ablewhite believes that had devolution happened twenty years ago, the A14 would have been upgraded by now.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Everybody locally knew that that local need was there. I think it’s always a battle going to Government to say look, you know, we need a big chunk of cash to do this. The whole point of devolution is that this will be about local decision making. And if I take Huntingdonshire for example, where we’ve got a lot of big brownfield sites, former military sites, which are very challenging in their geography and where they are, to deliver those we need infrastructure investment . If we’ve got that local power, if we’ve got local money that we can put into that, then that’s got to be a positive for the future. And it helps us with our plans. I think in ten years time I’d like to see East Anglia as an absolute powerhouse. We already know that economically it’s one of the largest economies in the UK. And in terms of GVA, between East Anglia, London and the South East, that is a big chunk of the UK PLC GVA every year. And I think a geography that’s wider, the governance is going to be an issue. I can see that because of the size, the sheer scale and size of it. But I would fundamentally love to see an Eastern Powerhouse.
CHRIS MANN: So we’ve heard from the Government proposing it. We have heard from there a council leader who accepts it. We’ve also heard from a council leader who doesn’t, Lewis Herbert for Labour. Let’s bring in, now that we have more details, Nick Clarke, former Conservative Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who last year defected to UKIP. Hello Nick.
NICK CLARKE: Good evening Chris.
CHRIS MANN: If you were still running the County Council of course you’d be involved in negotiating all this. Would you be in favour?
NICK CLARKE: I’m always in favour of bringing decision making as close to the people as you can. But unfortunately this particular deal is flawed, and the closer you look at it, you have to ask the question why the deal has been brought forward. The sums being talked about by the Minister, he’s presented them I have to say in a slightly disingenuous way. £1 billion sounds like a lot of money, but of course that’s over 30 years. And if you think about it, the current A14 widening scheme is about £1.5 billion. You can see how quickly that would be lost. But what is buried in a document that I have seen is a clear reference that this devolution is all about effecting greater influence and decision making in respect of the European Structural Investment Funds. The EU like regions. We don’t have regions any more. And that’s what this is about. And I would be .. I could bet a ten pence piece that this is a direct result of the Prime Minister ‘s negotiations over the referendum.
CHRIS MANN: I’ve seen the same document. I believe it’s gone out to many of our local council leaders. So are you saying effectively that it’s a bribe from Europe through the Prime Minister to the regions, and of course specifically to the East?
NICK CLARKE: I have no evidence to that, apart from the reference that I’ve just given you. But it does very much feel like that, because this proposal is rushed. I’m agreeing with Lewis Herbert that people have not had a chance to consult over it. And yet within the document it talks about by June authorities will need to have moved on this, and by 2017, just a year away, there will be an elected Mayor and they’ll have an authority across the three counties. And yet what’s going on here isn’t replacing existing authorities., which may save some money. It’s on top of that, because it is very clear in the document that there is no intention for the combined authority to take on any of the existing powers from local authorities. When you look at the detail and question it, it is flawed in a number of significant areas. And these need discussing at the councils, with the LEPs, because what is the role of the LEP moving forward, and of course with local people. This is rushed and bad governance.
CHRIS MANN: Who should be the Mayor, if it does happen?
NICK CLARKE: Well there’s another question. I really don’t know. I think at the moment that the disparity between the powerhouse that is Cambridge and Greater Cambridge and our more rural colleagues up in Norfolk and Suffolk is a big difference. And what we should be looking at is challenging this agreement on the basis of geography. We know from years and years of research that Oxford, London and Cambridge is a magnificent triangle. London has the money. Oxford and Cambridge has the research. Now whilst there may be an attempt to spread that further, up to Norwich and Ipswich, it is not easy. So this devolution will hurt Cambridge, Greater Cambridge, and it will almost certainly help Norfolk and Suffolk. Not a bad thing, but from a selfish perspective, from somebody who tries to stick up for the people of CFambridgeshire, I think it’s a bad deal.
CHRIS MANN: Nick Clarke, thank you for joining us. Former Conservative Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. Now, as I said, with UKIP.