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Norfolk County Council leader brands devolution a "shambles" as he reveals concerns over deal

PUBLISHED: 06:30 20 April 2016 | UPDATED: 07:36 20 April 2016

George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, has withdrawn his support for the devolution deal in its current form. Photo: Bill Smith

George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, has withdrawn his support for the devolution deal in its current form. Photo: Bill Smith

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The devolution process has become a "shambles", according to the leader of the biggest council involved in the discussions, who today said he could not recommend his authority accepts the deal currently on the table.

The flag of East Anglia, flying over County Hall. Pic: Norfolk County Council.The flag of East Anglia, flying over County Hall. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

Up until now, Norfolk County Council Labour leader George Nobbs has been one of the biggest supporters of a deal for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - but today he reveals his frustration what he sees as the government’s failure to recognise the uniqueness of the region.

Mr Nobbs, whose council just last week agreed to push ahead with negotiations over a deal, today expressed his grave concerns over the way forward and called on the government to “I am committed to a devolution deal for East Anglia and I realise there is a risk in saying what I am going to say, but there is a greater risk if I say nothing.

“Hitherto, I have been one of devolution’s greatest friends and have done my utmost to make sure it gets through every hurdle, the most recent being our full council meeting where I was determined to prevent it from being strangled at birth, which is what many councillors wanted.

“But now we have a two month period in which we are supposed to prepare a document which all 22 councils can agree on and which we have to get through our respective councils and recommend for public consultation. And as things stand, there’s no remote chance of that happening.

Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs. 
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

“The biggest problem is that, in all the devolution arrangements which have occurred - in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, London and the northern powerhouses, the government has only had to deal with single tier authorities.

“Therefore, when it came to East Anglia, they thought the same model could be applied. But it has become painfully obvious, at leaders’ meeting that, after a year of talks, the government has not grasped the difference between two tier areas like us and unitaries.”

Mr Nobbs said that had become plain when government officials said they expected both the counties and the districts within their area to carry out separate public consultations over devolution - even though that would mean people would be asked the same question twice.

He said: “Do not misunderstand me, I want this to work, that is but one example of the shambles this process has become.”

Mr Nobbs also criticised the governance model for the combined authority, led by a mayor, saying it did not make sense for the districts to have an equal voice as the counties.

He said: “If every council has an equal voice, then we have 670,000 voters and a budget of £1.4bn and we would have the same voice as say, Great Yarmouth Borough Council which has an electorate of 56,800. The districts could outvote Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

“In our region, based on the current situation, we’d see one party with 86pc of the vote and the only other party would be mine with 14pc of the vote.

“There would be no representation on the combined authority at all for the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party, the Greens or independents, yet in Norfolk County Council’s last elections 68pc of voters did not vote for the Conservatives.

“Any mayor other than a Conservative one would be impotent and I would not much fancy the chances of even a Conservative mayor in the circumstances.”

Mr Nobbs said government promises of a “bottoms up” process, with areas deciding their own deal had been “hollow words”, with the process which must be followed already enshrined in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act.

He is writing as “a critical friend” to local government minister Greg Clark and Lord Heseltine saying if the deal is even to get to the point of public consultation, the government needs to “help”.
Mr Nobbs said the government needs to release the “straitjacket” it has placed on the process. He said: “I want them to loosen their vice-like grip on the process and relax the rigid timetable and show they mean they said it would not be a top down approach.”

Mr Nobbs stressed he had never been against an elected mayor, but that recent council meetings had highlighted how difficult it would be for one mayor to represent the three counties.

He said: “My good faith and commitment to devolution is not in question. But, in the circumstances, what the government needs to do is give us a chance to come up with a devolution deal which has some democratic legitimacy, that is tailored to fit our needs in East Anglia and that allows us significant time to engage with the public so we can take it forward in a meaningful way.”

Cambridgeshire County Council leader Steve Count recently said he wanted a separate devolution deal for just Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, while Suffolk had initially sought a single county deal.

• What do you think? Write, giving full contact details, to Letters Editor. Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email EDPletters@archant.co.uk

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