The secret talks which will shape how Norfolk is run - and where power lies

Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters

Talks over a County Deal for Norfolk took place between council officers and government officials this week - Credit: Mike Page

It's a potentially major shake-up, which would affect every single person in Norfolk - and could place powers in the hands of a mayor to drive the county forward.

Yet much of the talk about a 'devolution revolution' for Norfolk is quietly taking place away from the public gaze, as DAN GRIMMER investigates.

There was much fanfare in February when it was announced that Norfolk had been invited to join the government's levelling-up 'devolution revolution' by seeking a County Deal.

Quite what a County Deal would entail was not quite clear then.

And three months on from Michael Gove's announcement that Norfolk and Suffolk would be among the first nine areas invited to get one, detail remains elusive.

Michael Gove.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove - Credit: PA

Essentially, a County Deal is an agreement which would see the government devolve some of its powers - maybe around transport, skills or housing - to local councils.

Digger near homes

County Deals could see areas given more power over housing - Credit: Chris Bishop

But very little is being said publicly about just how these deals would work - or what one for Norfolk would look like.

Every so often, at council meetings, the topic crops up.

Most Read

Heads are nodded in agreement that a deal has rich potential, that this could finally be the chance for Norfolk to get the powers it has long coveted.

However little flesh is put on the bones of what it might actually look like and what exactly it is that the county wants.

But that is not to say nothing is happening. Far from it. Council leaders have been talking about the issue for months.

Debate, behind closed doors, has been raging about how ambitious a bid Norfolk should be going for and what it should be seeking.

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller - Credit: Rose Sapey

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, had expressed concerns that getting it wrong could end up being like the finale of the old TV show programme Bullseye - where contestants hoping to win a speedboat went home with a decanter set instead.

It's worth a reminder, at this point that previous devolution bids have not gone smoothly in Norfolk.

Just over a decade ago, the Boundary Committee recommended a single unitary authority covering all of Norfolk - which would have seen district and borough councils disappear.

Norfolk County Council made a play to become a unitary authority, as did Norwich City Council.

It was announced that Norwich would become a unitary authority, but at the 11th hour, then local government secretary Eric Pickles quashed that move.

Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011

And in 2016, the government offered Norfolk and Suffolk a deal which would have seen powers devolved to local councils, bringing in £750m of new funding for infrastructure and £130m for new homes.

But the government insisted the two counties must have a single elected mayor - which led to Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Breckland and North Norfolk councils withdrawing from the process.

Other councils voted against it and the deal was taken off the table.

An initial submission to government was submitted by Norfolk County Council back in March - although just what was asked for has not been revealed.

One of the key issues which will need to be thrashed out is whether Norfolk will end up with an elected mayor.

The government seems to have signalled that is what is needed to get the very best deal available.

When this newspaper asked about that in February, the government told us that, while elected mayors are not a pre-requisite, "the most comprehensive devolution package will only be available to areas with a directly elected mayor".

Officers added: "We will also look to allow mayors to use different titles, appreciating that alternative terms may feel more fitting, particularly in more rural areas."

This very week, government officials were in Norfolk to discuss the negotiations around a deal.

A couple of days before that, at a county council meeting, Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council, was asked, by Great Yarmouth Borough Council leader Carl Smith, what the latest situation was.

Andrew Proctor has sent a scathing letter to the Planning Inspectorate over its decision to allow 17

Andrew Proctor has sent a scathing letter to the Planning Inspectorate over its decision to allow 170 homes to be built in Brundall. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

Mr Proctor said: "If there was to be a deal between the county council and government, it would be that - between the county council and the government.

"It's not about creating new authorities. But the stance is we need to get the deal done properly.

"We need to see the colour of the government's money on this before we make any decision on any form of governance.

"This is a really exciting opportunity for Norfolk. It gives us the opportunity to put Norfolk firmly on the map.

"The key to it is to pursue as ambitious a deal as possible."

Mr Proctor chose his words there carefully, to stress how this is a deal between the county council and the government.

The government has made clear, while the involvement of district councils is encouraged, the actual deal is with the county council.

And that has not gone down well with all district leaders - with concerns ramped up further due to a clause in the recent Levelling Up Bill.

Those provisions seem to make it possible for district council powers to be transferred to new combined county authorities without their approval.

Sam Chapman-Allen smiles, wearing a dark suit and tie

Sam Chapman-Allen, leader of Breckland Council. - Credit: Gary Donnison Photography

Sam Chapman-Allen, leader of Breckland District Council and chair of the District Councils’ Network said: "We want to work with the government to deliver their commitment to level up the country and empower our local communities.

“However, we’re concerned that district councils’ local knowledge and ability to deliver on levelling up is being overlooked when it comes to delivering new County Deals.

"The legislation would prevent district councils being constituent members of the new-style combined authorities and appears to allow district powers to be transferred to the combined authority without their consent.

"We think this is unnecessary and counter-productive. District councils are well placed to help the government deliver ambitious deals to improve outcomes for our residents.

"We want the opportunity to do that as equal partners in county deals and call on the government to recognise that in the legislation."

As for the mayoral question, Mr Proctor has previously said he would prefer to see a deal without a mayor, with powers invested in the county council leader.

Just how that will play out - and whether Norfolk will end up with a mayor or governor remains to be seen.

But at some point, these discussions need to be moved more into the public arena, rather than being conducted behind closed doors.