Devolution for Norfolk? What is it and what are other people doing?

The flag of Norfolk outside the Alexandra Tavern on Stafford Street, Norwich. Photo: SteveAdams

The flag of Norfolk outside the Alexandra Tavern on Stafford Street, Norwich. Photo: SteveAdams - Credit: Steve Adams

Devolution is once again back on the agenda after the leader of the county council raised an interest - but what does devolution mean?

Norfolk County Council leader, Andrew Proctor, recently told the Local Government Chronicle he is “keen to explore the opportunities” of a devolution deal.  

The council wants to ensure the county is best positioned to make the most of the government’s levelling up agenda and support economic growth across Norfolk, Mr Proctor said.

Adding: “[I have] convened discussions with district councils and other stakeholders to set out together our initial shared ambitions for Norfolk and a county deal.”

While Mr Proctor is keen on pursuing devolution, very little is known about what it could mean for Norfolk.

Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council, has backed calls for East Anglia to once again con

Andrew Proctor, leader of the county council, has once again raised devolution - Credit: Norfolk County Council

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At a basic level, devolution is the transfer of powers and funding from national to local government - bringing decision making closer to the local people it affects.

But devolution can take many different forms and England has a hodgepodge mess of layered systems that often butt up against each other. 

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England, very roughly, has four types of local government - two-tier authorities (like Norfolk), unitary authorities, combined authorities and mayoral combined authorities.

In a two-tier system, county councils sit alongside a second lower district, borough or city council.

There's often two criticisms of this system. Firstly, it's confusing, with residents rarely knowing which council deals with each issue - how many people know for example, that the district council collects your bins but the county sorts waste disposal?

Critics also say it duplicates work, costing taxpayers more money in the process.

Unitary authorities instead offer all the services under one council.

Combined authorities are corporate bodies made up of two or more council areas, with or without an elected mayor.

The groups enable two or more councils to take decisions on issues beyond the interest of one individual authority.

Under a directly elected mayor, the mayor is a member of a combined authority.

The mayor has one vote, however combined authority legislation often requires the mayor’s vote is included in majorities in favour of a decision.

The mayor also has a veto over some of the authority’s decision-making and member authorities may not be able to make decisions in these instances. 

Although not a requirement, mayors are allowed to establish a ‘cabinet’ consisting of local authority leaders representing the member authorities as well as the opportunity to appoint a ‘political adviser’.

The role of Police and Crime Commissioner has been combined with the mayoral role in three areas, including Greater Manchester.

The role of directly elected mayor has come into sharp focus in the past few years, especially with the coronavirus pandemic.

Greater Manchester's Andy Burnham, for example, was suddenly thrust into the limelight for his local leadership, earning himself the nickname "King of the North" after a high-profile argument with the Tory government.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire.

Andy Burnham has been branded 'King of the North' for his role as Greater Manchester's mayor - Credit: PA

But some have suggested this popularity has come as a double-edged sword, with the Financial Times reporting that characters like Sadiq Khan in London getting under the PM's skin - himself a former London mayor.

Despite devolution being a 2019 conservative manifesto pledge, with promises for the next stage to be set out in a 2020 white paper, specifics are still unknown.

In a far-reaching speech in July, the PM said the government needed to “rewrite the rulebook” and take a “more flexible approach to devolution” in England.

“The UK will never fit into some cookie-cutter division into regions named after points of the compass,” Mr Johnson said.

“But where there are obvious communities of identity and affinity and real economic geographies, there is a chance to encourage local leadership.”

Norfolk, in comparison to its closest neighbour, Suffolk, has always had a more fragmentary outlook on devolution. 

Suffolk County Council has gone so far as to put in an application to take part in a devolution pilot scheme, helping the government draw up a White Paper.

The county has linked up with all Suffolk's districts and boroughs, the county's Police and Crime Commissioner and its seven MPs to ask the government for it to be included in the pilot scheme. 

By contrast, Norfolk's various councillors have rejected different versions of devolution.

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller criticised former plans, accusing county hall leaders of "strutting around like Middle Age Kings born to rule".

However, he was more restrained in July, saying Mr Johnson's speech indicated something Norfolk missed out on in 2015.

Speaking in response to Mr Proctor's comments to the Local Government Chronicle, Labour Norwich City Council leader Alan Waters said the county is a "very long way" from any kind of deal.

"Boris Johnson's speech on 'Levelling Up' earlier in the summer, was very thin.

"The Government needs first to gain the confidence of local government and local residents.

"This means investing in services, not cutting them; increasing the powers of council's, not reducing them; lifting people out of hardship; not adding to the numbers in poverty."

Devolution in Norfolk 

Five years ago, 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 an 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 removed. 

Switching to unitary councils - single-tier authorities rather than the current two-tier system - proved one of the most divisive issues in local government in recent years. 

In 2008, Norwich put forward a bid for unitary status and the county council responded by proposing a unitary Norfolk - which would have seen districts abolished had it happened. 

One of the first acts of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government was to stop Norwich from getting unitary status. 

Devolution in the UK

England's mass mess of structures does not extend into the other countries that make up the UK.

Wales for example is purely made up of 22 unitary councils.

Does having a single, Wales-wide system encourage more voting in elections? The turnout in the May 2017 local elections was 42pc.

In 2021 local elections, Norfolk's overall turnout was 33.89pc, with some districts as low as 17pc.

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