Prime Minister’s (Norfolk) Questions

Editor Peter Waters got the chance to quiz David Cameron after he dropped in to the EDP headquarters on his visit to Norwich.

Here is an edited verison of the main points of their Q&A session, beginning with the prime minister looking some recent EDP front pages...

DC: The A11 – we've helped out there. Make It Marham – you got that. Broadband – we're supporting you there. Police and crime commissioners? Uhm, we may not agree on that...

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PW: Yes, the EDP has been campaigning against the introduction of them. We live in the safest county in the country, so we can't help but think that the idea of directly-elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) is a broad brush approach to a problem that doesn't exist here in Norfolk. And in belt-tightening times, how can you justify spending over �200m on electing PCCs when our constabulary is having to save �24m in the next three years?

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DC: Ask people in Norfolk to name someone accountable for the police and they would be hard pushed. With police commissioners they will be directly electing them so they will know who it is.

They will be the person everyone in Norfolk will know that if 'I'm not happy with my police', that's the person in charge of getting what we want from the police.

The cost of police commissioners will be no more than the cost of the police authorities and there may be opportunities for savings over time.

We did a study and only 7pc of people had actually heard of their police authority. People don't know what the police authority is, haven't heard of the members and don't know what they do. Making one person accountable will work extremely well.

PW: We believe in Norfolk that our chief constable is accountable and the chairman of the police authority, Stephen Bett, is very well known, speaking regularly in the media. If it's not about politics as you've said previously, why are you planning to hold the elections for PCCs in November, when the days are shorter and the turnout will be lower, and not in May as was originally intended? Plus, a low turnout could allow for someone with a more extreme agenda to be elected.

DC: The reason for moving it was to make sure we don't do this in a rush and there is time for people to come forward. Taking time is always sensible and it's good for the first election not to be muddled up with other elections.

I think in the end the public have pretty good sense about who they elect. There are quite strict rules about what police commissioners are and are not allowed to do and there is still operational independence for police chiefs and police forces. The key thing which I think is lacking at the moment is that sense of accountability, and I think having a nominated elected individual that everyone knows is responsible for the policing you get will help.

PW: If you have a situation where the police chief constable is operationally independent, but the elected PCC has the power of hire and fire, surely the chief constable isn't operationally independent? As soon as they clash the police commissioner is going to say, 'sorry, you're fired'.

DC: There are safeguards in the Bill for exactly this sort of eventuality. It's been managed in London very effectively and been managed up and down the country very effectively. What you don't want is a politician saying 'investigate that crime, let off that one'. That is interfering with operational independence, that is not right. But making sure the police are accountable for what they do and policing their delivery – is it zero tolerance-based policing? Are they spending enough time thinking about crimes affecting the countryside? Are they going after white collar criminals hard enough? I think it is right that an elected person is able to ask those questions.

PW: We campaigned vigorously against regional development agencies for the simple reason that being part of East Anglia, one of only three net contributors to the Treasury, we were disadvantaged. Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex are very affluent, Norfolk and Suffolk are not. So we were very happy when you brought in the Local Enterprise Partnerships. We have our own one for New Anglia – Norfolk and Suffolk – and we feel that we have our own voice now. But what frustrates us is that we don't seem able to get access to Regional Growth Fund money and we don't have assisted area status. All the money seems to be going to the North East and Humberside. Siemens recently chose Hull as the base for their wind turbine plant generating 700 jobs and that was in part due to government incentives.

We have got very deprived areas in places like Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth which are desperate for some help. We will have enterprise zones in those two towns, but there's no government money for them.

DC: It's a very fair point. First of all I'm pleased that you're pleased about having a more focused enterprise partnership and I think it's right. We really didn't want to impose them on areas. We wanted areas to say to us, 'actually, the right link up in this case is Norfolk, Suffolk, new Anglia', and I think that's great. The second point – the enterprise zone does mean money in effect because companies that locate there will get massive rate relief and tax relief advantages. I know that area well and I know it needs extra development. The third point about the Regional Growth Fund money I accept. So far it's been disappointing for your region, but there's the second round in the autumn, and there's some very interesting bids as I understand it coming in from this area. There's a separate process for allotting the money but I hope that you have some success. Final point, don't underestimate the importance of broadband, particularly for large, far-flung rural areas like yours. The danger of small businesses being left off the information superhighway in rural areas is very, very great and that's why the government is putting �500m into delivering superfast broadband right across the country and I think this will be hugely important, in particular for Norfolk and Suffolk, which are great business locations, but absolutely need those broadband connections.

And is the government paying attention to this important part of the country? Obviously we have got the A11 decision, the Marham decision and now Norwich is in the Premier League...

PW: Thank you for approving the A11 scheme – the EDP has been campaigning for its full dualling for a long while now. But when is it going to start?

DC: We know it isn't this year but it is in the government's forward plan to start before the next election. We want to start as soon as we can – that will be in the 2012-13 financial year. We're not able to start construction of the scheme earlier as we have to complete the detailed design of the project and carry out further surveys to confirm the extent of the environmental and archaeological works required. There's an awful lot of issues over wildlife and other things, but it is going ahead.

PW: This is, as you appreciate, very much a rural county, and there is a lot of interest in country pursuits. Would you look at repealing the ban on hunting?

DC: It is a matter for the House of Commons. We have always said we will make time available for a free vote and that commitment remains.

PW: Phone hacking is a national scandal, but it's worrying how many of our journalists came back into the office after this whole thing blew up and said: 'People are actually asking us about this, whether it's a practice that we are involved in'. It's almost: 'well, you're all at it, aren't you?' And this isn't the case in the regional press. We live in our communities, and anyone we write about we might have to face in the street the next day. What concerns us is that the government might use this as an opportunity to impose new restrictions on the media. Do you understand the difference, can I ask, between the national media and the regional?

DC: I do completely – and not only do I understand the difference between the national papers that were indulging in this practice and regional papers, but also I think your readers know very well that regional newspapers have a different agenda, a different way of doing business and a different approach. There's a sort of calm and reasonableness to regional papers that you don't always get from national papers. That's not to say you don't fight very strong campaigns, you do, but there's not the same level of hysteria, if I may put it that way. And let me reassure you, I said very clearly at the liaison committee in Parliament this week, the scandal of what has happened must not be used as a sort of bone to relish for MPs to over-regulate the media and get their own back for the expenses scandal. That would be completely wrong. We want a vibrant free media and we particularly want that in our regional papers. It's up to Lord Justice Leveson, who will chair the inquiry, as to what he comes up with, but the sort of independent regulation that will be looked at, I don't think that newspapers that act responsibly have got anything to fear from.

PW: That's good to hear prime minister. I understand you came up to Norfolk by rail today. You probably know from some of our MPs that we have a bit of an issue with our rail link to the capital. National Express are losing the franchise. There will be a short-term franchise holder put in and then a longer term one. It seems fair to surmise that if the short-term franchise holder does a good job they might be awarded the longer term. The short term franchise covers the Olympics and we must absolutely get our rail service running smoothly for that period. If there is one Olympic legacy for Norfolk it will be boosting the tourism industry and part of that will depend on a reliable rail service. With regards to the long-term franchise can you give us any assurance that in handing out the franchise there will be a commitment to investment?

DC: Yes, I can. The whole point of longer-term franchises for rail services is that you can then insist that the franchisee puts more money into services, to platforms and all the rest of it. That is absolutely essential. The rail link between Norfolk and London is vital and, as you say, if you are going to get the legacy benefit you need a faster service. So the point of a franchise is more investment. I think there are big opportunities for the Olympics and let me reassure you we are about to launch a massive campaign to encourage people to visit for the Olympics but also to go on visiting the UK after the Olympics is over. There will be a big advertising promotional campaign. We are also going to be working with hotels to try and co-ordinate great deals to encourage people to bring their families, to come back twice that year and the rest of it. We have a very active tourism minister in John Penrose and perhaps I should send him up here to tell you about it.

PW: He'd be more than welcome. If Visit Great Britain are promoting us to the world, will Norfolk be able to capitalise on that? We want visitors to stay in beautiful Norfolk for the Olympic fortnight and then take their day trip down to Stratford.

DC: Yes, because the key is trying to get people to go to more places outside London. I see this – I have now got this extraordinary house right in the middle of London and London is overwhelmed with tourists, which is great, it's a fantastic city, but I have swum in the sea at Holkham in April and loved seeing some of the beautiful sights you have on the Norfolk Broads and on the Norfolk coast. There's an enormous capacity for tourism and jobs from tourism in this area and I think in Britain as a whole we are not making the most of what we have got. You have got the most extraordinary mixture of culture, heritage, landscape, coastline, but also brilliant rock festivals, musicals, plays and museums. We have still got more Chinese people visiting Germany than Britain now. I'm all for Germans, some of my best friends are Germans, but we can do a lot better.

PW: In terms of capitalising on that, sadly Norfolk is not top-of-mind for visitors coming to this country – the likes of London, Oxford and Bath are. What can we do about that?

DC: I'm a great lover of the Norfolk coast, I think it's a very beautiful part of the world. I now have my holidays in Cornwall, but I have had holidays in Brancaster and places like that.

PW: I think the best bit of PR we could have for Norfolk tourism is to be able to say the prime minister stayed with us in the county for a week. How about it?

DC: I have to be careful I don't have too many holidays. It's a very nice offer and as I say I have had holidays here in the past. Apparently I'm pronouncing 'Stiffkey' wrong. It should be 'Stookey'. I have stayed in the Blakeney hotel, I remember having a very good meal in Wells-next-the-Sea, I have had holidays in Brancaster, learning to play golf on the course there. What else have I done? That's enough. I'm saving up the Norfolk Broads for when my children can swim better. I don't want to lose one overboard!

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