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Could Norfolk take inspiration from other devolved regions?

PUBLISHED: 10:47 09 November 2017

Could Norfolk councils be in for a shake-up? Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Could Norfolk councils be in for a shake-up? Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

As part of our series looking at the future of local government, political editor Richard Porritt looks at what hasn’t worked elsewhere.

Should Norfolk be taking a more flexible approach when it comes to the future of local government?

Questions have been raised about whether the ‘one-size fits all’ model of devolution that includes a mayor and has been taken on by regions elsewhere in the UK is the best option for the East.

And Jonathan Dunning, branch secretary of UNISON at Norfolk County Council, believes the answer could lie in a bespoke devolution for the region.

He thinks devo-lite, rather than reorganisation, could yet provide a solution to the local government funding woes.

He said a model which did not insist on a mayor and which granted powers and money through existing council structures would make more sense, something the County Councils Network – the body that represents England’s 37 county council and unitary authorities – has been pushing for.

He warned: “I fear many county and unitary local authorities will soon be delivering only statutory services or services that are 100pc self funding. They may even struggle to do this. We urgently need a short-term solution.

“Looking further ahead, UNISON do not believe further talks on local government reorganisation represent a credible way forward at this stage.

“Local authorities are already working together to be more efficient. A formal reorganisation strategy will get in the way of sensible local solutions.”

Just last year, then chancellor George Osborne announced an Eastern Powerhouse would be created, with a draft devolution deal on the table for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

That deal, it was claimed, would give a combined authority new powers over transport and strategic planning and see the Treasury dish out £30m a year for the next 30 years, along with £175m of housing money.

But the government’s insistence on an elected mayor led to criticism. Cambridgeshire said “no” and ended up getting its own devolution deal with Peterborough.

In Norfolk, Norwich, Breckland, Great Yarmouth and North Norfolk District Council withdrew. South Norfolk and Broadland voted for it, but West Norfolk against. Despite support in Suffolk the chaotic picture forced communities secretary Sajid Javid to withdraw the offer.

The idea to devolve so-called “city regions” came out of the failure of Tony Blair’s Labour government to introduce English regional governments. When the creation of a North East Assembly was rejected in a referendum in 2004 the plans were thrown out.

From that failure though came talk of the city regions. This led to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 which allowed for directly-elected mayors in certain regions.

Although the proposals have led to numerous stalemates, some regions have embraced the changes. Could this provide a blueprint for Norfolk?

In the North West the announcement of the chance to change the way the Greater Manchester Combined Authority was funded and run was widely supported and former Labour Health Secretary Andy Burnham is now the elected mayor with around £1billion worth of spending power over transport, housing, planning and policing.

And Liverpool, the West of England, Tees Valley and the West Midlands also struck devolution agreements and have elected mayors.

But the impasse in the East is far from unique: proposals also collapsed in Lincolnshire, Essex, Cumbria, the Solent region and the North Midlands. In Yorkshire most local politicians agree there should be some form of devolution – they just can’t agree on how it will work. After two councils backed out of a full deal for Sheffield the idea of a Yorkshire-wide proposal has been floated.

Now the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has been approached in a bid to help broker a deal.

Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton said he thought the One Yorkshire plan was worth pursuing: “We feel the prize of a wider geography, particularly the Yorkshire geography, and the enthusiasm for that is a unique opportunity.

“I think our challenge across the region is to persuade (Sajid Javid) of the benefits that can be achieved by that.”

Yorkshire has a population of around 5.3million people – on a par with Scotland. In comparison Norfolk’s population does not reach the 1million mark. But is there a way forward for Norfolk looking at the One Yorkshire model without the metro mayor option?

How council cuts have bitten...the homeless

The number of rough sleepers in Norfolk and Waveney has increased by 100pc in the past five years.

Information from the National Audit Office revealed that Norwich, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, and Waveney saw the biggest rise since 2012.

But it has only been between 2015/16 and 2016/17 that the number of rough sleepers in those areas has dramatically increased.

In Norwich, the figure jumped from 13 to 34, while in King’s Lynn it increased from five to 42.

Earlier this year, Norfolk County Council cut £4.5m from a budget used to commission services from charities and housing providers.

Organisations such as Norfolk YMCA, The Benjamin Foundation and Equal Lives warned the cuts from the Building Resilient Lives budget would reduce their ability to deliver housing support services and could lead to an increase in homelessness.

What was promised in the Norfolk/Suffolk devolution deal?

Power over transport, highways maintenance, house building and strategic planning was offered to Norfolk and Suffolk by the government in its devolution deal.

The two counties would have got £750m over 30 years to spend on infrastructure and £130m to go towards housing, with a combined authority and an elected mayor overseeing how the money was spent.

But critics questioned what £25m a year would have paid for and whether it was genuinely new. And there was unrest in Norfolk over the government’s insistence that devolution would only come with an elected mayor.

Norwich, Great Yarmouth, North Norfolk and Breckland all withdrew from the process. While South Norfolk and Broadland voted in favour, West Norfolk’s decision to say no effectively killed off the deal.

Communities secretary Sajid Javid then withdrew the government’s offer.

What happens when you say yes to devolution?

Norfolk and Suffolk said no to devolution, but Cambridgeshire and Peterborough said yes.

They accepted an £800m devolution deal.

Conservative James Palmer was elected as the first mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in May.

He said he wanted to change Cambridgeshire not for the next four years, but for the next 30 to 40.

He is at the helm of the new combined authority, which will decide the area’s economic strategy, with powers over housing, transport and infrastructure.

The authority recently agreed to spend more than £4m on transport schemes, including for new railway stations.

But Mr Palmer has also made clear he believes his county is “over-governed” and that there is a “cheaper, more streamlined and more efficient” way to run local government.

He has said he wants to bring forward an independent review of local government.

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