Norman Lamb accuses Whitehall of holding Norfolk back
PUBLISHED: 13:44 13 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:44 13 November 2017
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An MP has revealed how he believes Norfolk could be "world class" but is held back by the "dead hand of Whitehall".
And Norman Lamb even thinks the way to break the deadlock over the future of local government in Norfolk could be a referendum.
Speaking as this paper reignited the debate over the future of services in the county he backed radical changes that could see Norfolk’s current councils reduced to just two.
Liberal Democrat Mr Lamb also called for an elected mayor for the county who would have “significant” powers.
And his backing for a major shake-up was mirrored by Conservatives Liz Truss and Richard Bacon.
Mr Lamb said: “The Boundary Commission told me there is evidence that larger councils deliver better services and the reason is that you can recruit the best people. My view is that we should have one or two councils in Norfolk and a mayor with significantly devolved power.
“We are the most centralised country in Europe apart from Malta – and they have good reason, they are quite small. The power and money resides in Whitehall so if we want to do anything in Norfolk we have to ask permission and they usually say ‘no’.
“I want to see Norfolk have control over its destiny, I want to see Norfolk have far more power to raise money and to be able to decide how it is spent and decide what our priorities are. We could take control to deliver the best schools in the country, to deliver the best integrated health system, the best support for dynamic new businesses. We could become world class but we are held back by the dead hand of Whitehall.
“A Norfolk assembly and an elected mayor would give the county real clout and I think the public would support an approach that seeks to maximise the value for money we get in the way our services are run.
“There are some people who have legitimate concerns about the size of a single council so I would consider an east west split. Within those councils you could have area committees and even involve decision making at parish level. But big strategic decisions would be made by a powerful Norfolk body with the ability to determine the future of our county.
“I would strongly favour asking the public. A referendum could be used or citizens’ juries. Not just a public consultation, a genuine democratic exercise. I am open-minded about what form that takes but I have no difficulty in properly involving the public.”
MP for South West Norfolk Liz Truss agreed that two super councils could be a way forward: “I do believe reforms can be made to local government. The different layers with differing responsibilities are confusing for the public and an increased burden on the tax payer.
“We have fantastic councillors working hard for the people of Norfolk however this can be frustrated, as well as time consuming and costly, by the fact one council does not deal with all the services in the area.
“My preferred option would be two unitary authorities, east and west, this would create two manageable councils that are able to serve their local residents.”
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, whose “How Should Norfolk Grow?” initiative has held several events in Norfolk in the last two years to discuss what good growth should look like, added: “The current system feels rather sclerotic. We have 414 councillors in Norfolk and that does not include the parish councillors.
“With a more streamlined system we could probably pay councillors and not spend any more money in total. To change a simple speed limit can take the County Council several years and cost tens of thousands of pounds. Local town and parish councils – who know their local patch best – often feel they don’t have enough say over what happens in their own immediate areas.
“The main planning function sits with relatively small district councils that are fearful of taking on a supermarket or a house builder because they are scared of the big legal fees for a public inquiry.
“This is not how you would design a system to bring forward great places for people to live in. It is no one’s fault but we can do better.
“We need an approach that makes sure that we have enough housing for everyone, especially young people many of whom have simply given up on having their own place, and we need to bring forward housing in a way that commands support. That means local people need to have the biggest say over what gets built, where it gets built, what it looks like and who has the first chance to live there. We need to make sure we have the investment in skills for the jobs of the future, especially in the digital economy. Obviously that means having excellent broadband and a good mobile signal everywhere. We need great rail links and better roads. The current local government system will only deliver these things slowly, if ever.
“In some shape or form we need to streamline things. You could have a unitary council with transport, housing, planning, economic regeneration, police, fire and emergency planning - and perhaps even the plethora of different NHS bodies – under the authority of a directly-elected mayor or county commissioner, to drive forward a vision for improving the county and delivering better value for hard-pressed taxpayers and residents. Personally, I think it would be a good idea for local people to seize the initiative and shape the future they want to see rather than having something foisted upon them.”