Norfolk MPs say their bond is still strong despite Chamber boss’ comments
Norfolk’s MPs are losing their collective power after a string of group successes and need to keep getting local projects “over the line”.
This is the view of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce chief executive Caroline Williams, expressed during the organisation’s flagship MPs event.
She told reporters that after successful joint ventures including completing the A11 dualling and securing government funds towards dualling the A47, the Norfolk Nine had begun to lose their star power.
New governmental and ministerial roles for members including George Freeman, Elizabeth Truss and Clive Lewis had made it “more difficult for them to spend as much time locally”, she said.
“To be honest in the last couple of years the Norfolk Nine have not been working as effectively together as they used to. When it was the A11 they used to work almost as a gang.”
She said the group needed to work to ensure the completion of projects like the A47 dualling and the proposed third Yarmouth river crossing.
But her view was not shared by Mark Pendlington, chairman of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), who said there was evidence of the MPs “working well together”.
He said: “We got the A11 investment and we got a good chunk of investment that we need for the A47.
“As I talk to MPs there is a great feeling that by working together we can achieve more.
“The Great Eastern Main Line, an investment of £1.3bn that will generate about 150,000 jobs between here and London, was only achieved because MPs and us and local authorities and businesses worked together as a united front asking government for money with a solid business case to support it.”
He added that the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce was “at the heart” of such collective projects.
“I think by the time we are back here next year we will be looking back at a very successful 2017,” he said.
Over the past five years the county’s nine MPs – who saw a change to their make-up after the general election in 2015 – have orchestrated efforts to complete the dualling of the A11 and secure funding for a similar scheme on the A47, have put the case for a third Yarmouth river crossing, and fought to secure the future of RAF Marham in the Make it Marham campaign.
The MP’s reaction
Broadland MP Keith Simpson said promotion of some of his Norfolk colleagues to senior roles was one factor in the group’s changing dynamic.
“Their workload has increased, and some of their public comments might be more constrained, but they have influence behind them.
“I don’t think there has been an enormous negative change. We are working on a variety of issues, everything from roads, rail and of course broadband. I think the issue of inter-connectivity is very important.”
He added that Chloe Smith, who is currently on maternity leave, was “one of the great motivators”.
Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP, believed the Norfolk Nine had been at their most effective during the coalition years, while Liberal Democrat Simon Wright was representing Norwich South.
“I think the advent of having MPs becoming ministers also make it more difficult. Some are more into collaboration than others as a style of working.
“I don’t think it is as good as it was and there is an obligation on us all to do something about that.”
Alongside infrastructure development, Mr Lamb said education was a priority for the group, with headteachers from Norfolk schools invited to meetings with them in Westminster.
Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis disagreed with Ms Williams’ assessment.
He said: “I think all of us work closely with colleagues and we have the advantage that we get on well together. We are together in Westminster most days of the week and talk almost daily in one form or another.”
George Freeman, who chairs Theresa May’s policy board, said since 2010 the MPs had been working in a “Norfolk coalition” to “tackle the historic underinvestment in our area”.
“The fact that we have so many ministerial roles amongst the Norfolk MPs mean that influence is brought to bear in the highest circles of government – often behind the scenes.”
For Mr Freeman, the skills gap is one of the biggest issues facing the county. “Whilst infrastructure is key, too many of our workforce haven’t been given the education or skills they need in a modern economy.”
Analysis from Annabelle Dickson, political correspondent
The 2010 election saw a host of fresh faces arrive in the House of Commons, determined to make their mark. Among them was an ambitious and energetic group from Norfolk.
All part of the coalition, the Norfolk Nine followed leaders Nick Clegg and David Cameron’s early love-in, discovering the strength of collective bargaining.
With the experience of the more seasoned politicians in their number, they became a potent force as they marched into ministerial offices to make their demands.
The former Chancellor’s love of hard hats and infrastructure announcements gave them a host of early visible wins.
But the 2015 election has changed the dynamic. Facing each other on opposite sides of the Chamber - they are no longer on the same team. Ministerial diaries make Norfolk meetings hard to fit in, The last 18 months has seen a huge shift, it was bound to change the Norfolk Nine.