Peterborough City Council will look at a devolution deal with authorities in Cambridgeshire after strong opposition was voiced against a greater East Anglian authority.
Councillors at an extraordinary meeting this evening (Wednesday, April 13) were set to debate a motion which said the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ devolution deal was not acceptable and that the council’s chief executive, Gillian Beasley, should write to the Secretary of State for Local Government to “bring this resolution to his attention.”
However, a late amendment put forward by council leader Councillor John Holdich, which was passed by a single vote thanks to the backing of the Conservatives, changed the motion to say the deal “appears” not to be acceptable to the council.
So instead of roundly rejecting the proposals, the amended motion, which was then passed, called for a widespread consultation before a vote in June on whether to continue discussions with the government over the deal.
And crucially, the amended motion also calls on the council to work with Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council “in support of its discussions with government concerning the desire for a devolution deal to be based on a Peterborough and Cambridgeshire geography.”
The original ‘Eastern Powerhouse’, announced in the Budget in March, would see a wider authority encompassing 22 councils in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk with an elected mayor.
If Peterborough City Council signs up to it, it has been told the government will not stand in the way of it securing its long-stated ambition of a fully-fledged university.
The deal would also see £30 million a year for the next 30 years spread across the authorities, with a further £175 million to boost housing.
However, the proposals have proved hugely unpopular, with Cambridge City Council and the The Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership refusing to consider the devolution deal.
And in a further setback to the government, Cambridgeshire County Councillors then unanimously agreed to reject the current offer.
In addition, MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, has joined other councillors in the region in voicing his concerns to the proposals.
Tonight’s meeting saw widespread criticism of the deal in its current format, but while opposition councillors wanted the devolution offer dismissed out of hand, Conservative councillors argued to continue discussions with the government.
Beginning the debate, Cllr Nick Sandford, the Liberal Democrat group leader, warned that the proposals would mean the delivery of major growth projects in Peterborough would not be decided here.
He said: “Let’s send a clear message to [Chancellor] George Osborne and [Communities Secretary] Greg Clark you must think again. These proposals are not acceptable.”
Cllr Ed Murphy, a Labour and Co-operative member, channelled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in referring to people he had met who did not like the deal.
Saying that the elected mayor would cost money and would “not bat for Peterborough,” he added: “We need to have some bottle as councillors and reject the current deal.”
Cllr Holdich then set out his motion which calls for a cross party working group to examine the government’s proposals and the results of a public consultation.
He said: “We have a track record of making some very good decisions when we have worked together and used public consultation to inform that decision making.”
Cabinet member Cllr David Seaton said the council needs to recognise that the deal means millions of pounds of new money for Peterborough and a commitment towards a university.
Cllr Darren Fower, a Liberal Democrat member, said the amendment by Cllr Holdich was “obfuscation personified,” adding: “This is the Conservative-controlled government with a concept of having a puppet doing their bidding for them.
“It’s obvious what we need to do - send a strong message to the central government we are not happy with it.”
Cllr Ann Sylvester, a Labour member, criticised the elected mayor element of the offer, saying: “It’s about as popular as turning an M&S into another charity store.
“Unless our negotiators are magical, which I think they are not, do we need this devolution deal? No.”
Cllr Richard Ferris, another Labour member, claimed the late amendment was an act of “sabotage.”
He said by rushing through the deal, Peterborough would end up with a Robin Reliant rather than a Rolls Royce.
Cllr John Whitby, a UKIP member, called for consultation to make sure Peterborough made the right decision, while cabinet member Cllr Andy Coles said: “We need to have a university for Peterborough.”
Fellow cabinet member Cllr Nigel North said: “We can either deal with the government or bury our heads in the sand.”
Labour group leader Cllr Mohammed Jamil said: “I’m not prepared to sell short the people of Peterborough in order to just get a university.”
Cabinet member Cllr Gavin Elsey told Cllr Ferris that he not found time to read a two paragraph amendment yet had managed to write a five minute speech. He, too, warned about Peterborough being left behind.
Cllr Nazim Khan, a member for Labour, did not want Peterborough to return to the days when the city did not get a fair deal as it was part of Cambridgeshire County Council. He said Peterborough would “lose its identity.”
Cabinet member Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald then told Cllr Khan he was talking “out of the top of his hair.” Although he does not like the current proposals, he urged for further discussions to take place with the government, saying: “We are talking about a regional body with powers we do not currently control.”
Cllr Lisa Forbes, a member for Labour, expressed concern that the working group included in the amendment would not have time to be set up with elections and an EU referendum coming up.
Cllr Stephen Lane, a member of the Werrington First group, said: “I do not trust the current government not to unleash Pandora’s Box.”
Cllr David Harrington, a member of the Peterborough Independent Forum, said: “We are a powerhouse and should be proud. My fear is we will be put on hold while the rest catch up.”
Cllr Bella Saltmarsh, a Liberal member, said: “I’m as passionate as anyone else about a university, but we should not be blackmailed into it.”
She added that a lot of people attend Anglia Ruskin University, which has a campus in Peterborough.
Cllr Nick Thulbourn, a Labour member, said the deal was poor and that the government should be given a kicking.
Cabinet member Cllr Peter Hiller then said there are opportunities to explore in the deal before the amendment was passed by 26 votes to 25 after two counts, the first of which was made void after the number of votes did not tally with the number of councillors present.
Cllr Chris Ash, group leader for the Peterborough Independent Forum, then highlighted the cost of setting up the devolution package before the amended motion was passed by 28 votes to 20, with three abstentions.