Next week, I’ve secured a debate in the House of Commons on Government plans for devolution in East Anglia and last week I had a productive discussion with Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and other local MPs on the proposals. On top of this, the spending watchdog, the National Audit Office has just published its own report on English devolution deals, which it has described as “complex” and “untested” and a potential risk to taxpayer value for money. Quite rightly, along with other large authorities across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, councillors on Peterborough City Council expressed their own reservations last week on the lack of details in the Treasury-driven plans, especially financial support, future governance and powers and details of which (if any) tiers of existing local government would be in line for abolition but left the door open once these issues were clarified, which seems prudent.
Finally, our local voice of business – the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership – has also stated its firm opposition to the emerging (and sketchy) plans.
Not for the first time, I’m not on the same page as the Government but I always have to think what’s good for Peterborough rather than what will endear me to the Chancellor or the PM, both of whom are now engaged in spending your cash trying to bamboozle you into staying in the failing European Union project! Maybe that’s why they’ve taken their eye off the ball and subcontracted the project out to Lord Heseltine, who hasn’t had a fresh idea on regeneration and local government since 1981.
In essence, East Anglian devolution is all a rather confusing mess and it’s for that reason that I will be trying to get the Minister to offer up some answers in the debate next Wednesday. It doesn’t look much like localism when local councils are seemingly to be side lined and yet I also can appreciate Whitehall’s ambition to have a big high profile figure with a strong consistent presence and a powerful mandate to hold to account on the spending of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds on, say, vital infrastructure projects like the upgrade of the A47 or A1, or on new housebuilding, apprenticeship schemes and business support, for instance.
But elected Mayors (outside London) just aren’t popular and it all looks like a costly vanity project, especially as this Government promised in 2010 to scrap regional government and what’s more, previous local government reorganisations have proved fractious, messy and expensive.
I hope Ministers will look again at the plans, communicate their objectives more clearly and take a more localist and collaborative approach with their municipal colleagues.
I wait with hope and optimism but in any event, we no doubt will return to the subject very soon.