UPDATE: Peterborough City Council moves step closer to devolution deal with Cambridgeshire authorities

John Holdich at the Town Hall EMN-151130-162627009
John Holdich at the Town Hall EMN-151130-162627009
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Peterborough City Council has moved a step closer to a devolution deal with authorities in Cambridgeshire.

Councillors last night (Monday, June 27) passed a motion to go to public consultation regarding a combined authority with an elected mayor from May 2017.

If other councils in Cambridgeshire agree to the same deal, which is being put to the Government, then work will accelerate to get the new authority in place for next year.

A new combined authority, with its elected mayor, would sit separately to the councils and spend the money and use the new powers offered by the Government.

These include:

. A new £20 million annual fund for the next 30 years to support economic growth, development of local infrastructure and jobs - some of which the city council said it will consider borrowing against

. A new £170 million housing fund to be invested over the next five years

. A Peterborough Enterprise Zone - allowing for businesses in the city centre to receive a five-year exemption on paying business rates

. A Peterborough University with degree-awarding powers

. Control over an existing £30 million a year adult skills budget

. A devolved transport budget, although the A14 and A47 at Wansford are not included in this.

The council will formally vote on the proposals in October.

Its leader Councillor John Holdich, who would sit on the cabinet of the authority, has described the devolution deal as the best in the country and stressed that no sovereignty will be lost from the change.

However, opposition councillors have expressed reservations about adding a new tier of bureaucracy which they want to avoid.

The debate at yesterday’s extraordinary meeting descended into train metaphors with Conservative member Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald telling his colleagues: “We are on the devolution train and it’s about to depart to the next station.”

Adding a “choo choo” for good measure, Cllr Fitzgerald was backed up by Cllr Holdich who even managed a little dig at the Labour Party, saying: “We might not have a driver but they do not have a crew.”

Labour member Cllr John Shearman interjected: “Your driver just jumped off the train.”

Setting aside quips about the state of the Labour and Conservative parties, the earlier debate had been impassioned and largely free of the squabbles which often characterise meetings of the full council.

Conservative member Cllr David Seaton began the meeting by telling councillors that Cllr Holdich “has delivered what members sought” by bringing back a better deal than the last one they had debated, which was looking at a combined authority for Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

He added: “It’s a deal that by any measure is the best in the country - a deal that accepts our ambition to be a university city, a deal that recognises our need for an enterprise zone, for regeneration of the city.”

Claiming that devolution would boost transport, housing and skilled jobs, he pleaded to councillors: “This is a great opportunity. Let’s grab it with both hands.”

Cllr Seaton’s Conservative colleague Cllr Marco Cereste was similarly enthused. He said: “It’s about accelerating our unrivalled economic success in this area. We are the envy of the UK.

“Our sovereignty is not going out the window. We will be the masters of our own home.”

Cllr Darren Fower said the Liberal Democrats were against this and that the new authority would be dominated by Tories.

He added: “We are not happy that Peterborough only has one vote out of nine even though we have much a bigger population than all of the district councils; that people living in Cambridgeshire districts have two reps on the combined authority whereas Peterborough people only have one; that we are expected to pay over 20 per cent of costs of the combined authority yet only have around 10 per cent say when it comes to voting.”

The potential benefits for Cambridge instead of Peterborough, and the rushed nature of the debate, was a continuing theme of the evening, epitomised by Labour member Cllr Richard Ferris who said he wanted to see the city get a slice of the action and grow the low wage economy.

His fellow Park Ward representative Cllr John Shearman also saw some of the benefits of the devolution deal, but said he wants to see EU money spent in Peterborough being ring-fenced.

Conservative member Cllr Peter Hiller said: “Our city is delivering growth faster than at any time since the days of the development corporation. Devolution gives us access to funding that would not be there otherwise.”

This included more homes for vulnerable people.

Cllr David Over, another member of the Conservative group, said this was the chance for Peterborough to be on the top table and “our chance to increase our income and spend it on our needs.”

He added: “We are going to have a university - that must be one of our great priorities. And not only a university but a good one.

“We are going to have a big university and it’s going to be bigger than Cambridge.”

Labour and Co-operative member Cllr Ed Murphy kept it short and sweet. He asked if the elected mayor would bat for Peterborough, adding: “If it’s too good to be true, it is not true.”

Cllr Angus Ellis, Labour representative, said he supported devolution but wanted to ask the Government if there had to be an elected mayor with so much power.

Labour group leader Cllr Mohammed Jamil called for road shows where the public could ask questions of people who know the details about the deal.

Cllr Chris Ash, leader of the Liberal Party group, said to have an elected mayor would be costly and would add another layer of bureaucracy. He added: “This is not a step forward for local democracy.”

Labour member Cllr Ansar Ali said he wanted to see devolution lead to the physical regeneration of the Millfield area.

Cllr Fitzgerald then said: “I’m generally not happy the Lib Dems are not happy as I love them to be happy, but they are never happy.”

On the elected mayor he said: “Get over it. It’s basically a chief executive. You have to have somebody at the helm.”

Liberal Democrat member Cllr Julia Davidson said the consultation was a “facade” as the document on devolution said major changes from now on would require a new scheme.

Conservative member Cllr Janet Goodwin said further devolution proposals would bring more exciting things than what is currently being offered.

UKIP group leader Cllr John Whitby said he wanted a careful eye kept on the costs.

Cllr Holdich then went on to say he was excited about the opportunities to develop skills in the city.

The motion passed by 48 votes to seven, with one person abstaining.

The council was told by the Government yesterday that the vote to take Britain out of the European Union, and the lingering threat of a general election, would not stop the devolution deal from going ahead.

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