Power to the regions - is East Anglia lagging behind on devolution?

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne holds up his red Ministerial Box outside 11 Downing Stree

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne holds up his red Ministerial Box outside 11 Downing Street before heading to the House of Commons to deliver his annual Budget statement. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday March 21, 2012. Lewis Whyld/PA Wire - Credit: PA

This week's budget will show our region lags behind the likes of Manchester in devolution plans. Political editor ANNABELLE DICKSON asks: is East Anglia missing out?

In his first speech, post-election, the chancellor travelled to Manchester to hail his plans for a 'northern powerhouse'.

His offer, which has gathered momentum, is to devolve power over policing, skills, housing, transport, even the £6bn health and social care budget, all in return for Greater Manchester electing a city-wide mayor.

But on Wednesday, he will not just outline his plans in the North-West.

Yorkshire, the Midlands, even the rural county of Cornwall could reportedly be referred to in his devolution revolution. But what about Norfolk, Suffolk, the Fens and the rest of East Anglia?

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Discussions about how devolution might work in our part of the world are taking place, mainly behind closed doors. It was top of the agenda for councillors who were at the Local Government Association conference in Harrogate last week.

But what an 'eastern powerhouse' could look like is not yet clear. Consultants have been commissioned to conduct preliminary research and propose options for our region's leaders to consider, a move spearheaded by Norfolk County Council.

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There are many permutations, and varying views. Should Norfolk and Suffolk join forces as former shadow Chancellor Ed Balls suggested pre-election?

The old rivalries have already been buried with a cross-border local enterprise partnership and some council and police services being merged.

Do the traditional county councils and their district councils look for devolution deals, or could smaller combined authorities around Norwich and Ipswich be created?

Such an option would present the question of what happens to the rest of the county. Will King's Lynn look west to Cambridge where it links easily via rail and down the A10 corridor?

Graham Plant, leader of Great Yarmouth council, said that as a borough councillor he would initially be looking to other district councils to work more closely with and said they were also examining what could be done at a county level.

However, Mr Plant warned that research had to be done to find out if savings really could be made.

A former Norfolk County Council cabinet member for transport, he said he had looked at joining forces with Suffolk to procure tarmac and share equipment such as lorries, but companies had been put off by the size of the area.

'There are economies of scale to be had. I can understand it working in a large city areas where councils are close together and bunching up could save money, but in large rural areas we have to understand what best services can be provided,' he said.

'We have to have the discussions and have talks with our partners and to see if there is anything that can be drawn up from this. Everybody is talking about it. They have to. It is something that has to happen. But we have to find out how to best make it work for us as individual councils.'

South Norfolk council leader John Fuller acknowledged that the Northern Powerhouse has had a head start and the attention of central government.

He also pointed out that Norfolk and Suffolk, unlike the northern cities, had sparsity to contend with.

But he is optimistic about the ability to create combined authorities given that councils had already been successfully working together.

'There is a good basis to start to build up our own combined authority around the infrastructure that is needed to support homes, around economic growth, around skills and transport. But it is early stages,' he said.

Mr Fuller is clear that whatever proposals come forward it has got to be an 'economic area that people can relate to'.

The government is adamant that it will not dictate how devolution will work.

But will our region come to a consensus?

The scars of the last local government proposed shake-up still exist after the unitary authority proposals were pulled after the last general election. Broadland MP Keith Simpson said he and Norwich MP Chloe Smith were drawing up plans to invite the new community secretary Greg Clarke, who is in charge of the devolution agenda, to come to Norfolk and talk to MPs and council leaders about what the Government was intending to offer.

'The councils can say these are the areas we are working in, this is what we are intending to do and this is the investment we would like to see.

'It is right the government puts a lot of emphasis on councils to think about what they are doing,' he said.

Norfolk will not get a mention in this budget – however, most local politicians do not believe this matters.

'I think you have got to have a clear idea of what you want to do rather than rush in,' said Mr Simpson.

Over the coming months ideas will start to emerge for our part of the world.

But at the moment, the Chancellor's northern powerhouse takes centre stage.

Do you have a politics story? Email annabelle.dickson@archant.co.uk

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