Peterborough City Council has voted for a devolution deal with authorities in Cambridgeshire which would include an elected mayor for the first time.
Described as a “once in a generation opportunity,” councillors last night (Thursday, November 17) backed the deal which would introduce a new combined authority made up of a representative from each of the county’s seven councils and the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership.
The remaining councils are continuing to vote on devolution which will be established if it receives approval from the Secretary of State.
Under devolution, there will be:
●. A new £600 million fund (£20 million annually for the next 30 years) to support economic growth, development of local infrastructure and jobs
. A new £100 million housing fund to be invested over the next five years to build more homes in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough including affordable, rent and shared ownership
.● A new £70 million fund to be used to build more council rented homes for Cambridge over the next five years because house prices are so high in the city.
Peterborough is also set to get its own university under the deal, although some councillors do not believe this has been guaranteed.
Moreover, there is large opposition to having an elected mayor who would be voted into office from May 2017.
There are also concerns in the city that the city council will lose its sovereignty, and that Cambridge will benefit much more than Peterborough.
Those fears will not have been allayed by the Government changing the terms of the deal a week before the city council was due to vote.
Under the latest proposals, the local transport plan and transport budget would now be taken out of the hands of Peterborough City Council, although the authority would get a veto on any final decision.
Transport grants, which this year total nearly £700,000, would also no longer go directly to councils. Instead, they would go to the combined authority with councils bidding for funds.
The Conservatives have been vocal backers of devolution, and Tory council leader Cllr John Holdich was in no doubt that this was a good deal for Peterborough.
He told councillors: “This is a once in a generation opportunity for the prosperity of the people of Peterborough and Cambridgeshire.
“This devolution deal will make a huge difference to residents and businesses in this city.”
The meeting then turned into squabbling over a motion to adjourn proceedings so members could digest the late changes to the deal made by the Government.
Labour and Co-Operative member Cllr Ed Murphy said he did not think councillors understood the changes, which brought derision from Conservative councillors Irene Walsh and David Seaton.
The former said: “That you do not understand the differences is worrying.” The latter said: “Thank you Cllr Murphy for teaching me to suck eggs.
“You got this last week. It’s six pages so you could have read a page a day. You could have read half a page in the morning and half a page in the evening and still got there.
“Some of your Labour colleagues could read it but not understand it and that’s the problem.”
As well as the motion to adjourn, an amendment put forward by Cllr Murphy also failed.
The amendment asked for the combined authority to receive recommendations around environmental sustainability and inequality, and to request that the Government be made aware of the city council’s opposition to an elected mayor.
Councillors then turned to the debate. Opponents to the deal claimed more needed to be done to “bat for Peterborough,” as Cambridge was getting £70 million for housing on its own.
The powers of the elected mayor were frequently referred to, as was the claim that there was no guarantee Peterborough would get its own university.
UKIP group leader Cllr John Whitby said the council had to take the deal, calling it: “The most important decision we are going to make in a generation.”
But he said the powers of the elected mayor were “excessive.”
Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Nick Sandford said: “We were told none of the powers which we currently hold would have to be passed up to the combined authority, but there are.
“A lot of the money which Government is saying they are giving to us is not extra money, but is money we could have bid for in the past.”
The Conservatives then had their say. Deputy council leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald said: “I’m optimistic about this. We have to put our faith in our officers, chief executive and legal team.
“It’s called a mayor but it’s a leader and cabinet model. I do not understand what the big issue is.”
He added that it is possible for Peterborough to extricate itself from the combined authority in the future.
Cllr Marco Cereste said: “Let’s vote for it now and improve it in the future.”
Cllr Janet Goodwin said: “For all our concerns, I know how hard the legal team have worked on this devolution deal to get the best result.”
Labour member Cllr John Shearman said the public had not had the chance to comment on the latest changes which “flies in the face of what we stand for on democratic principles.”
His colleague Cllr Angus Ellis said: “This Conservative government is in chaos over Brexit, so why should we trust them on devolution?”
Liberal Party group leader Cllr Chris Ash said: “I do worry what we have on the table here is not what we will have on the table in a few year’s time. I think it’s bad for democracy and I’m convinced Peterborough’s powers will be diminished.”
Cllr Murphy said this deal will see the end of the city council in the future. He added: “We have done a really poor service for Peterborough. There was so much you could have got out of this, but you got very little.”
Labour member Cllr Richard Ferris said they were deciding whether to replace one form of administrative bureaucracy with another. He added: “We are disappointed with the total lack of detail.”
Cllr Holdich, summing up, said the council had received an “assurance” that a university would be delivered. He concluded: “This is a superb deal for Peterborough.”
Devolution was passed by 33 votes to 18, with the two UKIP councillors abstaining. The Conservatives and Werrington First group voted for the deal to go through, with Labour and the two Liberal Democrat members present opposing it.
It was revealed last week that it will cost £1.7 million in the first year to implement devolution, and £6 million over five years, although these costs will be met by the Government.
However, backers of the scheme say that for every £1 spent, £45 will be generated to spend in the county.
Huntingdonshire, Fenland and East Cambridgeshire district councils have already backed the devolution deal.
Cambridgeshire County Council was due to vote on Tuesday but pushed its meeting back a week after the terms of the deal changed.