Lewis Herbert and Lucy Nethsingha – reservations around an Eastern Powerhouse devolution deal

“We’re going to take this in a democratic and transparent way to the first possible meeting, which is on 23rd March, and Cambridge will make a decision.”

eastern_leaders17:20 Friday 11th March 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: The BBC understands the Government wants to go ahead with an Eastern Powerhouse devolution deal, despite Cambridge City Council announcing it’ll not take part. The Leader of the City Council is with us very shortly. The proposals would give control of transport and planning to a single mayor, with responsibility across Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. And the Leader of the LibDems on the County Council also with us in a moment or two. But first of all, political reporter Tom Barton from Look East. Tom, what’s it all about?
TOM BARTON: So this is about effectively Government giving away some power. So decisions that are made at the moment by civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall and Westminster instead being passed to local areas. It’s been going on for a while, trying to find an area that they can give it to effectively. Norfolk and Suffolk had put together proposals which they took to the Government. The Government said, we like what you’re talking about, but we don’t think you’re a big enough area for this to work in. We want you to go and work with Cambridgeshire instead.
CHRIS MANN: Big enough in terms of numbers?
TOM BARTON: in terms of the impact of the economy if you like. So not just population, but economic power.
CHRIS MANN: Because Cambridgeshire is a powerhouse.
TOM BARTON: Exactly. And the Government, this is all going to be announced at the Budget next week. George Osborne the Chancellor wants to stand up in the House of Commons and announce a deal for an Eastern Powerhouse. That’s what he’s talking about. And so this would give a new elected mayor, effectively East of England’s very own version of Boris Johnson, the power ..
CHRIS MANN: Or Alex Salmond.
TOM BARTON: Or Alex Salmond. .. the power to do a range of different things. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but it’ll be around housing, infrastructure like roads, railways, public transport, skills, those sorts of things, across all three counties. So it would wear away the borders between the counties, and see decisions taken across the board.
CHRIS MANN: Where would it be based, this government, this devolved, not parliament, but devolved .. ?
TOM BARTON: The institution if you like of the mayor. We don’t know. That’s one of the things to be decided. They might choose a point somewhere geographically in between Norwich, Ipswich and Cambridge. Who knows? But the crucial thing is the Government has been trying to get this deal signed off. They really wanted the whole of Cambridgeshire on board. But last night, as the deadline approached for the deal to be signed off, Cambridge City Council walked away. They said that they don’t want to be part of it.
CHRIS MANN: OK. And let’s bring in the Leader of Cambridge City Council, who is councillor Lewis Herbert. Lewis.
CHRIS MANN: Why did you say no?

LEWIS HERBERT: It’s not the right deal for Cambridge in short. We’re at a crossroads. We have links to Essex and Hertfordshire as well as Norfolk and Suffolk, and our interests lie in all directions. I think the other bit is this has been like a shotgun wedding. I don’t know if you can have a wedding with three people, but it’s been three weeks.
CHRIS MANN: You can in some societies.
LEWIS HERBERT: You can in some societies. So it’s been a shotgun wedding from a different society, and it isn’t working. It’s been rushed, simply to get a Budget headline.
CHRIS MANN: Well here’s someone else who doesn’t want to be a bride I don’t think, Lucy NethSingha, LibDem Leader on the County Council. No?
LUCY NETHSINGHA: Definitely no to this.
CHRIS MANN: You’ve had the question popped and it’s no.
LUCY NETHSINGHA: Definitely not to this deal. This is the wrong deal for Cambridgeshire. Tom was talking about this being about the Government giving away power, but actually the Government has given away very little power in this deal. It’s all about power going up from local councils to this peculiar new East Anglia thing.
CHRIS MANN: Well the Chancellor’s been on bended knee, and someone said yes. The Leader of East Cambs District Council James Palmer told Paul Stainton’s Big Conversation earlier today they would be backing the Government’s proposals.

JAMES PALMER: East Cambs will be signing up to it. And I can’t speak for the City Council. You’ll have to talk to Lewis Herbert and discuss with him why.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re signing up for it are you? You’re happy with it.
JAMES PALMER: I can’t understand why he wants to turn down a share of £1.2 billion, but you’ll have to ask him.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re signing up to this. Do you think Norfolk is going to take all the cash? Are you going to end up with nothing?
JAMES PALMER: (LAUGHS) Absolutely not.

CHRIS MANN: So Tom let’s just check here. How many parties are in?
TOM BARTON: So there were twenty three councils involved in the discussions for this. The three county councils, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, plus nineteen district councils. All of them apart from Cambridge City Council have signed up to it. And on that basis, the Government has decided, with or without Cambridge, they’re going to go ahead. This deal is going to happen, regardless of the fact that Cambridge City Council have decided not to take part.
CHRIS MANN: Does that make you change your mind Lewis?
LEWIS HERBERT: Well none of these councils have actually had a meeting to sit down and make a decision. These council leaders haven’t got some sort of super-power. They have to have a decision. I’ll be interested to hear Lucy’s view about what’s going to happen at the County, because the Leader there has made a decision that I can’t see how he can sign. We’re going to take this in a democratic and transparent way to the first possible meeting, which is on 23rd March, and Cambridge will make a decision. I don’t expect to be overturned, but it will be a democratic opportunity for all of the people who are councillors in Cambridge. None of the other councils are actually letting their councillors, or even their communities, or their businesses. And my past point is that the business community, both the Local Enterprise Partnership and everybody I’ve spoken to today in Cambridgeshire business networks, the business leaders, they say no as well.
CHRIS MANN: So Lucy, on the County Council it’s interesting, because of course there’s a committee system. Conservatives used to have an overall majority but not any more.
LUCY NETHSINGHA: Absolutely. It’ll be very interesting to see. Lewis is absolutely right. Steve Count is signing this on behalf of Cambridgeshire County Council, but he doesn’t have a majority at that council. So he’s going to have to persuade other people to back him on this, and at the moment, I’m not aware that there are any other parties on Cambridgeshire County Council who are supporting the deal.
CHRIS MANN: But the Government’s offering money. Surely you want that, don’t you? People will be puzzled by that.
LUCY NETHSINGHA: If the Government’s offering money, they should offer it to us without all these strings attached for a mayor. We do not need another layer of government in this area. If they’ve got money to offer, that’s fantastic. Let’s have the money. But of the money that Tom was just quoting, a lot of that is money that is already in the system. There is a relatively small amount of new money.
CHRIS MANN: That old trick.
LUCY NETHSINGHA: Absolutely that old trick. There is a very small amount of new money on offer, and it’s on offer over a period of thirty years. This Government can’t promise to deliver money over thirty years.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Lewis, you’re sort of an island in the middle of all this aren’t you, surrounded by people who want the cash. You don’t want the cash it appears.
LEWIS HERBERT: Well we do, but I think Lucy’s absolutely right. James Palmer has said how much it is. The actual sum equates to £1.3 million per year per council, and it’s probably not new money. So it’s actually enough to build fifty miles of dual carriageway in thirty years in the East of England. That is not Eastern Powerhouse. That is an Eastern by-pass. It isn’t big enough, the cake. Obviously we want our share, but we asked for ..
CHRIS MANN: Is this a negotiating ploy Lewis?
LEWIS HERBERT: Well I don’t know. I was in Whitehall Monday. We had meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. We said can we please have the funding to replace all the housing that we’re going to lose through right-to-buy, Treasury taking our properties away. Just have enough money to build 1350 homes over five years, and they said no. So in terms of meeting the affordable rent needs of Cambridge they said no.
CHRIS MANN: Lewis Herbert, thank you. The Leader of Cambridge City Council. Thanks to Lucy Nethsingha, Leader of the LiBDems on the County Council. Much obliged. And Tom Barton from Look East.