Will the dash for devolution reap dividends or harm democracy?

Cambridge University buildings, (front to back) the Grand Courtyard of St John's College, Trinity Co

Cambridge University buildings, (front to back) the Grand Courtyard of St John's College, Trinity College, Senate House and the Old Schools, Gonville & Caius College and Kings College Chapel. Photo credit: Nick Ansell/PA Wire - Credit: PA

A necessary rush to ensure our region does not miss out on an injection of cash and fresh powers, or a desperate and doomed attempt to secure a future for councils struggling to make ends meet?


Two contrasting readings of the dash for devolution, which has been pushed to the forefront of the political agenda thanks to what happened in Scotland and chancellor George Osborne's keenness on creating a Northern Powerhouse.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is making its way through Parliament. It would see the government devolve more powers to local authorities.

Norfolk County Council's policy and resources committee is due, on Monday, to agree that a combined Norfolk and Suffolk authority should be the way forward.

But a fractious behind-closed-doors meeting of council leaders from the two counties this week – co-ordinated by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and attended by government officials – threw doubt on whether that would happen.

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A revised bid – sparked by the government's indication that a Norfolk and Suffolk bid might succeed where standalone bids by the two counties would not – was due to be submitted to the government today.

Last night it remained unclear whether that would happen.

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Publicly, councillors have been at pains to say a deal could be worked out but, privately, some are far from optimistic.

If it does happen, a Norfolk and Suffolk devolution deal would require a new form of governance based around a 'combined authority' mode. How that would work – and what powers and money would come from the government – remains frustratingly unclear, as does what that would mean for other local councils.

George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: 'There's no attempt to be secretive about this, but due to its very nature , the number of people involved and the timetable, it has been challenging.

'It's not a time to be timid. Without a laid-down framework it takes more time to reach agreement between the many councils and bodies involved, but at the end it will be worth the trouble.'

County council papers say the combined authority approach could also include clusters of districts. Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk already work together through the Greater Norwich Growth Board, so that could be a natural fit based around the existing City Deal focused on Norwich Research Park and its research.

Great Yarmouth Borough Council and North Norfolk District Council are also in talks over shared services, so perhaps a coastal cluster, maybe even including West Norfolk and/or Waveney, could be created.

Breckland District Council is an a somewhat unusual cross-border partnership with Lincolnshire's South Holland Council, so might West Norfolk join them as a cluster?

And where do the fire service and police fit in? Plans for a joint control room for Norfolk and Suffolk's police forces collapsed last year after it was vetoed by Tim Passmore, Suffolk's police and crime commissioner.

But the government is now talking about allowing police and crime commissioners to take over fire services – which could revive the arguments for a combined police force and a joint fire service.

What do you think? Write, giving full contact details, to Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.

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