At the Suffolk Devolution debate this month, councillors broke party lines to speak and vote their mind. The Suffolk Lib Dem group were among 20 county councillors who – after much thought -opposed the offered Devolution deal (despite personal support for the concept of Devolution). While we approve of giving local authorities more control over spending, this proposal leaves much of the crucial decision-making with the government.
However a 2/3 majority decided that Suffolk should now move to public consultation. Councillors and Officers see this as an opportunity to take control of a wider range of services including aspects of health and social care integration.
Combined Authority & Mayor A “Combined Authority” headed by a locally elected Mayor would be in control, supported by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership ( incorporating unelected business leaders) to deliver the devolved services in Suffolk and Norfolk ( in effect a fourth tier of Local Government) The Mayor would have a deputy and a small but senior officer group. The Mayor would work with the leaders of the constituent authorities, the County, District and Borough Councils.
Many of us are concerned that the Mayor, elected by around 15% of the population working with leaders, or representatives from just the largest parties in constituent authorities would represent only some 30% of the population. The very real fear is that people’s belief that they are not represented and that their views don’t count will be confirmed.
Concerns: Our concerns were:
- the clear democratic deficit this devolution deal will offer – an overarching authority will consist of one member from every council (probably the leader);
- the thorny question of an elected Mayor for each county (and all the extra bureaucracy that would go with that post);
- the relative smallness of the sums offered to Suffolk ( a single pot of £750m -£25m a year for 30 years – for Norfolk and Suffolk to invest in infrastructure, economic growth and jobs) ;
the fact that the Government will still oversee everything it wishes to oversee, but just without the responsibility, thus making the county the ‘fall guy’ for its more unpopular decisions
- – and possibly most of all – the government’s target for Norfolk and Suffolk to build an additional 200,000 (some figures quote 240000) houses in Suffolk and Norfolk by 2031. In Suffolk, this is the equivalent of creating 4 extra towns the size of Ipswich, or increasing every town and village by 35%. Such a magnitude of growth is not needed to satisfy local demand
The Housing Problem Suffolk badly needs specific types of housing and it is not being built. We specifically need starter homes, disability-specific housing, and accommodation for older people wanting to downsize – all for a population already living in Suffolk. (And whose needs are not being catered for). Do we need 100,000 houses(or more – the Norfolk/Suffolk split is not mentioned) and where will they go? WHo would they be fore? Our towns, roads and commuter rail are already congested. How will our county cope with growth of this magnitude?
Having said which, Norfolk and Suffolk would at least receive £100m to invest in shared ownership housing and could use up to 15% of it for houses for social rent. Finally, £30m to Norwich and Ipswich over five years, that is £3m a year each -about 30 houses – will be useful but hardly game changing for these two towns.
Transport The Combined Authority would also receive a single budget for public transport guaranteed for four years, replacing the numerous annual budgets that Government currently provides. This would provide certainty on funding that is currently not possible but is still just a small portion of the funding needed. The downside is that the impact of local decisions on things like concessionary fares are difficult to predict.
Despite such reservations voiced by many, devolution was voted in by a resounding majority (40 for, 20 against, 3 abstentions, and a couple of hurried departures just before the vote…).
A public consultation including a MORI telephone poll and an online survey has opened and will remain open over the summer only. You can find it at www.eastangliadevo.co.uk/consultation/ . It will be open for responses until 23 August.