MPs give verdict on a year of coalition

Ahead of last year's general election the EDP unveiled a manifesto for Norfolk, highlighting the key priorities which should be delivered for the county. But a year on, has the coalition delivered? Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports

When Nick Clegg and David Cameron cemented their coalition agreement in the Downing Street Rose Garden last year, it was not just the two leaders who would need to learn to work together.

Norfolk's new intake of MPs was a also a reflection of the political make-up of the coalition and, from an early start, there was a determination to work as a 'pack' to try to secure the best deal for the county and lobby on issues such as A11 dualling, and better broadband links.

But just how well have the MPs delivered on the eight key issues raised by the EDP in its Norfolk manifesto? On the plus side, the government has at long last confirmed a start date for dualling the A11 and there was a surprise announcement in the budget of �26m to help expand the Norwich Research Park.

The MPs were also vocal in supporting a Norfolk Local Enterprise Partnership (Lep), to replace the East of England Development Agency and drive forward private sector-led economic growth.

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But the idea did not curry favour with ministers and a hastily re-submitted bid for a Norfolk/Suffolk partnership was approved instead.

However, it is too early to say whether this New Anglia Lep will deliver and it has already lost out in a first round of bids to the government's regional growth fund, which has seen money allocated to the north of England.

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Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said he felt his best achievement in the last 12 months was launching the Norfolk Way bursary to help school leavers find training opportunities with local firms, followed by the A11 and Norwich Research Park announcements. 'I am strong supporter of the coalition,' he said. 'I think after the election, the public wanted a cross party national government to tackle the national emergency. It's also been good for the tone of politics and has seen more grown-up and rational debate around policies which can make for difficult headlines, but I think it is mainly a good thing.'

Norwich South MP Simon Wright said he was pleased the coalition had moved quickly to scrap plans for a national ID card, but he often took the greatest satisfaction in helping constituents at his weekly surgery sort out their problems and concerns.

'Sometimes by adding my support, I am able to to help people address these problems and in many ways that is the most rewarding part of the job,' he said. 'But the stand-out moment for me was when the chancellor announced that the A11 was going to get the money for dualling and there was an audible cheer among Norfolk MPs. That was something we had been working on collectively as a group.

'Nationally we've got two parties with quite different values and political heritages, and there are going to be disagreements. A lot of these have taken place behind closed doors, so people haven't necessarily been aware of them. But on the local level, Norfolk's MPs are very passionate about the areas and communities they represent, and we all have a shared sense of purpose about putting Norfolk on the map and resolving many of these issues.'

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss said her highlights in her first year as an MP included seeing �18m secured to build the new Thetford Academy school and helping to force a rethink on the government's controversial plans to sell off Forestry Commission land.

'The issue I'm most excited about is the A11 and getting a date for dualling,' she said. 'Securing more infrastructure improvements and looking at improving the railways will be important in the coming years. Getting education standards improved will also be extremely important.

'The economy has been good in terms of getting a clear deficit plan sorted out and gaining the confidence of the international markets.

'There have been a few things we haven't got right first time such as the Forestry issue, but given the fact that we are two different parties coming together, I think it has gone as well as could be expected. Clearly I would like to see a Conservative majority government, but in the interests of the country, it was the right thing to do, and when I was out canvassing in the local elections, a lot of people gave me that feedback.'

Norfolk's MPs are still united behind the methods being pursued by George Osborne to get the economy back on its feet. But the government also launched an austerity drive committed to eradicating the deficit within the life of this parliament. Yet it has been councils and public bodies locally which have been handed the unsavoury task of wielding the axe in specific areas. Plans by Norfolk County Council to axe 3,000 staff and impose a whole of host of service cuts sparked a host of protests, but the real pain has yet to be felt.

It is these indirect decisions flowing from the government's cuts, and how they are implemented locally, which may yet determine the real legacy of the coalition, both in Norfolk and beyond.

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