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Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire could vote for one mayor in 2017

PUBLISHED: 06:30 16 February 2016 | UPDATED: 08:44 16 February 2016

Local government Secretary Greg Clark

Local government Secretary Greg Clark

Archant

Voters could head to the ballot box to cast their vote for the first elected mayor of East Anglia as soon as next year, the communities secretary has said.

How did we get here?

The day after Scotland voted no to independence in September 2014, prime minister David Cameron announced talks which would lead to further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Devolution was suddenly a very hot topic. The Conservatives had seized the initiative for devolution in England earlier that year, with chancellor George Osborne leading the drive for the creation of a Northern Powerhouse.

The idea was to redress the imbalance between North and South and to attract investment into northern cities and towns. To do that, a deal was struck for Greater Manchester to have an elected mayor from

2017, in return for the transfer of Whitehall powers over transport and health.

That was followed by deals for the Sheffield and Liverpool city regions, a north east combined authority, a Tees Valley combined authority and combined authorities for West Yorkshire and the West Midlands. It was also announced Cornwall would get devolved powers.

But, Cornwall apart, the government is still looking to show it is committed to devolution outside of the big urban areas. Which is where East Anglia comes in. Norfolk and Suffolk both separately expressed interest in securing devolution deals, but the government swiftly made clear it was looking for something more than a deal for single counties. The two counties were urged to work up a joint bid. Overtures to get Cambridgeshire involved as part of a deal appeared to be rebuffed, with councils in that county seemingly more interested in joining forces with the likes of Bedfordshire. But Greg Clark and Lord Heseltine have clearly knocked heads together. The next few weeks will see a fresh bid drawn up. If and when a deal is formally offered, each council will get to vote on whether they want to be part of it or not.

Senior cabinet minister Greg Clark, who has been tasked with overseeing the handover of powers to the regions, travelled to Cambridge yesterday to meet leaders from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in a bid to secure a three-county deal.

He said the East of England should not be on a “slower track” than Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, where deals have already been agreed.

Just weeks ago Cambridgeshire’s political top brass wrote to Norfolk and Suffolk to say they were not interested in joining forces, but leaders have agreed to look again following the meeting with the delegation from Westminster, which also included former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine.

Mr Clark said there had been a lot of enthusiasm about a potential devolution deal at the meeting in Cambridge, where new powers over housing, skills and transport from Westminster and Whitehall were discussed.

“All of the leaders and the Leps [local enterprise partnerships] will now talk to say what the concrete asks of a proposal will be, bearing in mind that different areas have different aspirations,” he said.

Questioned about whether a deal which would involve Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgshire councils was the only deal in on the table for the region, Mr Clark said: “I am not convinced that having micro-deals lives up to the potential of the area of being one of the strongest motors of the whole national economy at a time in its history when it is poised to become even more successful and celebrated than it is already.” And he was clear that new powers would have to come with an elected mayor.

“If you want to take powers away from secretaries of state and be that ambitious, and we do and have been in Manchester, then you need to have someone who will hold those powers with a mandate,” he said.

Mr Clark added that while a date for mayoral election had not been discussed, a 2017 poll was “possible”.

“I see no reason why the East of the country should be on a slower track than the north and the West Midlands,” he said. George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: “It was an extremely positive meeting and all the people there have agreed to go away and urgently work on a practical set of proposals for a devolved authority that would include Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough. We expect to be working intensely on that over the next few days.”

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