Leaked email reveals plan by Chancellor George Osborne to meet council leaders in Ipswich ‘to launch East Anglia devolution deal’

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visiting the Tata Steel factory in Port Talbot, South Wal

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visiting the Tata Steel factory in Port Talbot, South Wales. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 25, 2014. He visited to see how it has been affected by the budget, In the Chancellor's budget statement last week he announced support for energy intensive manufacturing, Tata's Port Talbot factory is the largest steel plant in the UK, producing five million tonnes of steel annually and employs over 4,000 people. See PA story POLITICS Osborne. Photo credit should read: Matthew Horwood/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Council leaders were waiting by their phones – and checking emails- tonight to see if Chancellor George Osborne keeps a promised visit on Wednesday “to launch the East Anglia devolution deal”.

Resistance growing in Cambridgeshire to Government's imposition of devolution

Resistance growing in Cambridgeshire to Government's imposition of devolution - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The leaders were put on ‘chancellor alert’ by West Norfolk Council who alerted them to the likely visit by Mr Osborne to Ipswich.

In an email sent by the Norfolk council “programme team” they advised council leaders in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk to put the date in their diary.

“The programme team have been advised that the Chancellor, George Osborne will be coming to East Anglia (probably Ipswich) on March 23, times and venue details not yet advised by Treasury, to launch the East Anglia Devolution Deal,” says the email.

“We are therefore emailing to ask you to hold this date, if at all possible, in your diary.”

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However no confirmation has yet been received by Mr Osborne as to whether the meeting will definitely go ahead.

The invitation to attend was signed by Cambridgeshire County leader Steve Count; Councillor Nick Daubney, leader of West Norfolk Council and Councillor Jennifer Jenkins, Babergh District Council leader.

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The three council chiefs added: “In the event that the majority of leaders are available it would seem appropriate to arrange the first meeting of the leaders of the entire East Anglia area.

“The programme team, on our behalf, will alert you to the details as soon as they begin to firm up.”

The invitation was extended to council leaders and their chief executives.

It is likely the Chancellor could be considering a postpone following the resistance that is growing within Cambridgeshire to a devolution deal that could see the county link up with Norfolk and Suffolk to create an eastern powerhouse presided over by an elected mayor.

A crucial test will come as early as tomorrow (Tue) with Lib Dems on Cambridgeshire County Council putting forward an anti devolution motion that, if approved, could scupper its chance of success.

Deputy Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha wants the council to “formally declare its opposition to the proposal for a mayor” which she believes “would reduce the influence of local people on planning for their own areas”

It looked increasingly likely over the weekend that she has won support from UKIP, Labour and Independent members that could spell defeat for the Tory led minority council. Only 30 of the 69 seats are held by Tories.

Defeat would be a set back for council leader Steve Count who was one of the 22 signatories to the original proposals but he has always insisted no final decision can be made until the public and councillors have considered it.

“By looking at the facts we can decide whether this is the right thing for Cambridgeshire or not as well as whether we want to go back to Government with a proposition in the autumn,” he said.

It’s not a view shared among all his Tory colleagues at Fenland District Council – where Cllr Count is also member and where council leader John Clark signed up to the provisional deal. Critics include fellow Tory councillor Steve Tierney.

Cllr Tierney, chairman of Wisbech Conservatives, believes the council’s alleged support for devolution has been misrepresented.

Cllr Tierney – who was narrowly defeated by Cllr Clark in a leadership contest last year- insisted members had been assured that the only agreement thus far was for further discussion.

“Since then we’ve had a BBC Look East report suggesting it was a done deal,” he said.

“I fully accept that the BBC and the Government could be jumping the gun a little when they declare that ‘all councils except Cambridge’ have agreed to the deal and I know our own FDC press release was more careful in its wording.

“But why have we not seen any rebuttal of the claims that the deal is done? “Constituents all now believe we’ve signed the deal because of the coverage. Telling them ‘the Government and the BBC have got it wrong’ isn’t taken very seriously.

“So could you please confirm that we do still have a decision to make here? That if we say ‘no’ then that will mean something?”

Cllr Clark retorted: “I have no control what spin our Conservative Government put on this but the final decision will be made by members at full council in May.”

Labour controlled Cambridge City Council is the only local authority across all three counties not to sign the original devolution document.

City council leader Lewis Herbert said: “The money on the table is about £1 million per council per year, and that really isn’t going to make any difference.

“Our infrastructure needs hundreds of millions of pounds just for Cambridge. We’ve only had three weeks to actually make our case to Government. Not enough money, nothing for housing. A bit like the Budget, there’ll be nothing for lower income and middle income people needing housing.”

Former county council leader Nick Clarke, now a leading member of UKIP and the party’s candidate for police commissioner, is among those heading the anti-devolution lobby.

“There are some obvious questions,” he said. “For example what has the tech centre of Europe, Cambridge, got in common with the lovely but remote coastal areas of Norfolk and Suffolk?

“Whilst it would be great for Norfolk and Suffolk to have the mayor divert money from Cambridgeshire to help prevent coastline erosion it will act as a drag on the Cambridgeshire economy.”

He added: “Why would anyone want a completely new huge local authority on top of the existing ones when everyone else wants to slim down to unitary authorities to save money? What is going on?

“Why is this proposal being rushed through?”

Mr Clarke said: “Many will say, including me, that bringing decision making closer to the people is a good thing. You might think then that the proposed devolution for the East might be a step in the right direction.

But, when you scrape just below the surface this proposal is flawed in a number of ways.”

He said that “whilst reading this hastily put together and poorly drafted proposal I started to question the motivation for the idea. I have not heard of any local campaigns for devolution. I don’t pick up any desire for an elected mayor for the three counties locally.”

And Mr Clarke added: “The document sets out the need for all 23 councils involved to have ‘a full debate and consultation with relevant stakeholders’ by June 2016 and everything in place with an elected mayor by 2017?”

Mr Clarke felt the devolution deal was part of a government strategy “to shape local authorities to meet the demands of the EU.,

“The proposed geography proposed is wrong. The financial carrot is horribly wrong. “The extra layer of government is wrong. The timetable is wrong.

“The lack of consultation is wrong. The desire to fit in with the EU’s demands is wrong.

“It is, in its totality, a bad deal for Cambridgeshire.”

NE Cambs MP Steve Barclay declared support for devolution and said the proximity of Norfolk and Suffolk – with many travelling into Cambridge to work- made it a logical move.

He also felt promised investment could be part of a “jigsaw” to enable his long term ambition of re-opening the Wisbech to March rail line to come to fruition.

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