Devolution on a knife edge as Cambridgeshire County Council tells George Osborne - who cancelled regional visit today- that deal not good enough

James Palmer and one of his tweets

James Palmer and one of his tweets - Credit: Archant

Devolution for East Anglia rests on a knife’s edge after Cambridgeshire County Council snubbed Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and told him his deal simply wasn’t good enough.

Ladbrokes odds for elected mayor

Ladbrokes odds for elected mayor - Credit: Archant

The Chancellor’s planned visit to Ipswich today to formally sign devolution proposals for a combined Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and |Suffolk is on hold.

During a stormy two hour debate, Cambridgeshire councillors voted unanimously (64 for and one abstention) for further talks on a package they felt had been rushed through and without proper consultation.

Despite county council leader Steve Count having put his signature to the earlier agreement – interrupted by Mr Osborne as a more ringing endorsement than turned out to be the case- the deal, for now, is in the long grass.

Councillors at Shire Hall want a better, unspecified, deal for Cambridgeshire that is likely to include forensic examination of the post of mayor of the new authority.

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Deputy Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha had tabled a motion to keep devolution alive but without the need for an elected mayor.

An 11th hour meeting of party leaders saw this amended to exclude any mention of a mayor – and any debate on what power he or she might exercise- to return to basic principles.

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The council is now asking its chief executive to invite The Treasury and communities minister Greg Clark and others to re-open talks on devolution but with a Government imposed deadline of the end of June discussions must be swift and be brought back to Shire Hall for agreement in May,

Independent John Hipkin felt the proposals didn’t encapsulate the hopes and ambitions of the business community. He also felt the £900 million devolution would bring over 30 years “would not go anywhere significant to solving Cambridgeshire problems”.

He said devolution consultations had been “inadequate and hurried”.

Whittlesey councillor Chris Boden labelled the agreement “incomplete” and said not enough was known about governance and funding.

“We don’t know about administration costs or the permanency of the offer being made,” he said. “In its current form it has to be unacceptable.”

He added: “I am interested in putting the interests of the people of |Cambridgeshire before party politics.”

Councillor John Williams described what he felt was the chancellor’s “arrogance”.

He said: “The money being offered is nowhere near enough for the problems we have. And we don’t want a mayor to be linked with Norfolk and Suffolk.”

Cllr Williams said of the chancellor: “I felt I know what it is like to live in a one party state where you are told what to do by one person in Government. It is totally undemocratic, totally wrong.”

Councillor David Jenkins criticised Cllr Count, asking “what right did he have to sign this document?”

He said: “I don’t reject devolution but I would give some guidance to those who would want to get the right deal for Cambridgeshire.”

He did however reject the idea of an elected mayor and told colleagues “we should be selfish and look after the interests of Cambridgeshire. “The deal on the table is fundamentally bad and must be rejected”.

Councillor Paul Bullen said there had been a lack of consultation and of scrutiny.

“Norfolk and Suffolk been engaged for a long time discussing devolution so why at the11th hour did the Government drag Cambridgeshire into it? It just doesn’t make sense”

For him “a single elected mayor is a huge ask and not wanted and a categoric ‘No’”.

Councillor Matthew Shuter felt though there were synergies with Norfolk and Suffolk and said postponement meant “we have an opportunity to explore” devolution options.

He asked: “Would a mayor be the right thing? I would not necessarily like to see a Conservative mayor”. Cllr Shuter, himself a Tory, felt they should look for the best person for the job, who may be independent.

Cllr Sandra Crawford hinted at the ‘Orwellian powers’ of a possible mayor, but Councillor Mac McGuire agreed postponing a decision left the door open.

Councillor Paul Sales questioned the cost of a mayor and speculated on the size of his cabinet and the number of officers that would be needed.

He was surprised no mention of cost had been included in the agreement.

Councillor Lorna Dupre spoke of the devolution agreement as being some form of “Alice in Wonderland” document and said the “obsession with mayors is the antithesis of accountability”.

Councillor James Palmer, though, said the debate was a disappointment and councillors should recognise it was only a discussion at this stage and the authority should look wider than Cambridgeshire.

He spoke of a housing market in Cambridge becoming over heated and “pathetic infrastructure and so on”.

He said: “This council has not delivered. It’s taken 27 years to get a by pass for Ely”. On Soham station he said he had to “grind my teeth” simply to get the county council to draw up a plan for its re opening.

He said it was all well and good for people in Cambridge with easy access to public transport but not so in his district.

“I cannot understand the insularity of this council,” he said.

“Not everybody in this council relies on Cambridge –Cambridgeshire can be truly great but if we continue to ignore the periphery, continue to ignore Fenland then we will continue to have failures.”

He said: “The (devolution) deal is not perfect but the Government wants us to put our feet under the table and discuss; this is phase one

“If you are concerned about the people of Cambridgeshire you will vote for this motion and also encourage our leader to get his feet under the table.”

“There is a deal to be done here, make no mistake,” said Cllr Palmer.

Councillor Mike Rouse spoke of the hold up to getting Ely north junction improved and felt “this devolution deal might accelerate that because it might support development in Norwich.

“We want links through to Soham, links to Newmarket and beyond

“Then you have freight traffic right through Ely – there are massive implications for infrastructure

“If we develop the infrastructure we can develop the wealth and spread the prosperity throughout East Anglia.”

Council leader Steve Count reminded councillors’ group leaders had supported him signing the early agreement.

“One of worst things about this deal was that people struggled to get most misinformation out there,” he said. “There was a deliberate interpretation to sink this.”

Denying the mayor would have “sweeping powers” he told councillors to read the document and they would realise the powers would be limited.

He said: “It is tragic the way people have tried to misinform the public.”

Cllr Nethsingha said: “The door is open for a different type of devolution deal but closed for an elected mayor for Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.”


FOOTNOTE: Former health minister Andrew Lansley – now Lord Lansley- has emerged as hot favourite to become the first elected mayor of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

Ladbroke’s are quoting odds of 3-1 for the former South Cambs MP – who stood down at the last election- to become mayor even though councils continue to argue over whether they will accept it.

Over the weekend, however, Ladbroke’s say “the money” was being put on Councillor James Waters, leader of Forest Heath Council, landing the job. His odds shortened from 33/1 to 8/1 and he’s now joint favourite with Cllr Waters.

Sixteen names have been put in the frame by Ladbroke’s including East Cambs Council leader James Palmer and Steve Count, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council; both are 16-1.

16-1 is also the odds on Ed Balls, former Labour minister and now chairman of Norwich City FC, landing the job.

Other odds quoted by Ladbroke’s include Stephen Fry at 50-1, Professor Stephen Hawking at 66-1, Delia Smith 20-1, and former Prime Minister John Major 33-1.

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