Will Government intransigence - ‘no expectation or indeed plan to reopen discussion’- scupper devolution bid for East Anglia?

Cllr James Palmer.

Cllr James Palmer. - Credit: Archant

Prospects of a devolved new ‘super powerhouse’ for East Anglia looked slimmer than ever tonight as the Government set out a ‘take or it leave’ deal that would include an elected mayor.

Graham Hughes, of Cambridgeshire County Council.

Graham Hughes, of Cambridgeshire County Council. - Credit: Archant

Contrary to what most councillors – including those from Cambridgeshire- believe, James Wharton, a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government insisted it had already been agreed.

“The government has made a deal,” he said. “Signatories were added to that document.

“We have no expectation or indeed plan to reopen discussion and start again.”

His interpretation of the agreement signed by 22 of the 23 local authorities across the three counties (Cambridge City Council declined) remains at odds with subsequent events. Leaders of many local councils felt the agreement was an ‘in principle’ only document and remained open to modification and amendment.

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The Westminster Hall debate was called by Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson who raised a raft of concerns, including about adding a fifth tier of government.

Mr Jackson accused the government of announcing the deal with very little consultation, telling the minister that in the course of the budget the government had disregarded other good work in devolving power in Manchester and Peterborough.

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The debate came on top of a week in which East Cambs District Council leader James Palmer said he was fed up with Cambridge City Council staying aloof from the devolution debate.

““We can’t carry on with this ‘Cambridge, Cambridge, Cambridge’ viewpoint, and forget the rest of the world,” he said.

And Cllr Palmer, who agreed to further talks in his role as a county councillor before leading East Cambs Council to ratify the deal three weeks later, was also critical of other Cambridgeshire councils.

“I hope the Government will stay strong on their current course of devolution – I think it’s the right deal for the East,” he said.

Cllr Palmer would prefer to take East Cambridgeshire out of the county and if possible join a devolved organisation with Suffolk and Norfolk.

But tonight the county council torpedoed one of his arguments in favour of devolution – that the promised £1bn 30 year investment would speed up delivery of the Ely by pass.

The county council feels the by pas, conceived outside of any devolution programme, remains on track.

Graham Hughes, executive director for economy transport and environment for Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “The council has long recognised the need for Ely bypass and has been progressing the scheme to reduce congestion in the area and boost the local economy.

“We are currently out to tender and expect to let a contract in July this year and aim, weather depending, to have the scheme finished around the end of next year. “Finances are in place with the LEP (local enterprise partnership) and we are going through the normal process that any scheme would go through to release those.”

Meanwhile the debate at Westminster was subject to intense optimism – especially from Mr Wharton- about the possibility of a further tier of local government.

“It is very positive that East Anglia is so far ahead in forging ahead with this policy agenda,” he said.

“But we must recognise that if areas want to come back on deals that have already been agreed and reinvent them before they have been enacted then we would have to look at the allocation of time and resources to other areas that have not yet reached agreement.”

Meanwhile county council leader Steve Count continues to work on renegotiating a devolution deal- the call for which was made unanimously by his colleagues.

He believes devolution “presents an opportunity to pursue a course to reduce bureaucracy and waste, whilst increasing efficiency”.

Cllr Count also believes “any proposal for the introduction of a new governing body would need to be cost neutral or better”.

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