I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government proposals for devolution in East Anglia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister, who in his relatively short time in post has done an excellent job of driving the Government’s regional and devolution agenda, particularly as the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse.
I come to this debate wearing two hats: one as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough for the past 11 years; and one as someone who is genuinely asking the Government to explain more coherently their rationale for this policy as it pertains to East Anglia. Obviously, we are a proud municipal entity in Peterborough. Our local authority was first incorporated in 1874, and 20 years ago we were liberated by throwing off the yoke of Cambridgeshire County Council to become, like other notable cities in England, a unitary authority as the city and county of Peterborough.
I am not ideologically against devolution in any sense, but it is incumbent on the Government to explain their position. It would be remiss of me not to draw the House’s attention to the excellent National Audit Office report published on 20 April, which was considered by the Public Accounts Committee on Monday in unison with another excellent report, produced on 23 March, on local enterprise partnerships.
Obviously, devolution is predicated on Government functions being moved to local areas and local entities. It is very much a bottom-up, not a top-down, process. That has certainly been the case in the majority of the 34 English local government areas that submitted bids following the Government’s invitation in 2014—the successful bids were announced in the 2015 autumn statement—but the policy of devolution must be seen within a wider context.
When the coalition Government were elected in 2010, we expressly set our face against regional government. We got rid of regional assemblies, having seen the mess made by the regional policy of the previous Labour Government, the rejection of regional government by the people of the north-east and, particularly, the rejection of the regional spatial strategies that had been trying to force inappropriate housing on many largely rural areas across the country. That was the basis of the Government’s position, and the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), specifically said at the time that there would be no further local government reorganisation.
It seems strange that, in what is essentially a financial statement, the Government disregarded the good work being done in places such as Manchester and Birmingham to announce, out of the blue and with limited consultation and collaboration with key stakeholders, local enterprise partnerships, local authority leaders and majority groups, three further devolution schemes in Greater Lincolnshire, the west of England and, of course, East Anglia. Given that the overall tone of the NAO report is that the process is a potential risk, and complex, the Government need to explain why that happened.
The policy involves 16 million people across 10 deals, and it arises from the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. I can understand why the policy is attractive to local authorities. It involves a cumulative sum of £7.4 billion over a 30-year period, or about £246.5 million per annum, but in the east of England it is only £30 million, which has to be set in the broader financial context. Currently, the three counties in the East Anglia scheme already spend £660 million in capital infrastructure funding and have already received £37 million of growth funding in the last financial year. The deal promises officially the lowest per capita funding of all the 10 devolution deals: £13 a head. That compares, for instance, with £22 a head for Sheffield, £20 a head for Liverpool and £23 a head for Tees valley—I am sure the Minister will have something to say about Tees valley.
If it were genuine devolution, I would be a bit more sanguine. I agree, of course, that it is not an ignoble aspiration for any Government to integrate and promote collaboration between key public services to improve them in sectors such as transport, business support, further education, housing and planning, although, incidentally, we are not devolving to any great extent the work of the Department for Work and Pensions, which has never been very agreeable to having any kind of subsidiarity or devolution. Also, the area of health is pick ‘n’ mix; some of the deals will have some health funding devolved and some will not.
A number of key issues cause me concern. One is about synergies. Is there really a synergy between the Suffolk coast, south Suffolk, St Neots, King’s Lynn and the city of Peterborough? I do not think there is. We should remember that the regional policy of the Labour Government was about reducing inequalities in the economies within regions and between regions, but the local enterprise partnerships that were established by the previous coalition Government were intended to take into account infrastructure and economic growth in travel-to-work areas, which, incidentally, are not coterminous with these new devolution deal areas.
I do not believe that there is any synergy. In fact, this is unprecedented. Unless we count Boadicea and Hereward the Wake, no one has ever decided it would be a good idea to have an overarching governance structure for the whole of these three counties in East Anglia. This is different from the other schemes. Of course, the Greater Manchester scheme and the Birmingham scheme effectively reconfigure the old Greater Manchester County Council and the West Midlands County Council, and they make sense. But regarding economic, demographic and social links, the East Anglia scheme does not stack up and it looks like a back-of-an-envelope calculation by someone in the Treasury.
That is an issue that concerns me. Another is duplication. Let me give just two examples. What is the point of LEPs now if some of their key functions in sectors such as skills and training are devolved to an executive elected mayor and a cabinet, with the numbers, powers, duties and responsibilities unspecified? We read that the combined authority will have an education committee. What will happen to Norfolk County Council’s education committee, or Suffolk County Council’s education committee and the cabinet functions that they discharge as local education authorities?
These are important issues and I do not believe that the Minister or the Government have addressed the potential for duplication across four tiers, and that is not including parish councils. The four tiers will be the LEP, the combined authority with the elected mayor, county councils and district councils. Quite reasonably, each of those bodies—particularly the district council and county council—is saying, “Which one of us is going to be abolished?”
My hon. Friend is presenting a superb case. Where would the police and crime commissioners, who have only been going for four years and who the Government now say are doing a very good job, go in all this? They are another elected tier and are doing well. Chances are that, if the elected mayor comes in, the PCC will disappear, as will the LEPs. Those two initiatives, which are actually working very well, would effectively be scrapped.
That is a superb point about competing mandates, which was eloquently made in an erudite fashion by our hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk on the “Today” programme this morning. It is a very important point.
We also need to look at democracy and accountability. I repeat the point that there was very little discussion or debate with important people in local government before this deal was announced at the Budget, and I deprecate that. It is not right when we are talking about a potential expenditure of £7 billion that will affect 2.3 million people. We do not know what primary legislation will be needed, and we do not really know what the powers, duties and responsibilities of the elected mayor will be. I will develop that point a bit later.
There is also a question about resilience. One of the issues that the NAO brought out in its report was whether there is the resilience in the civil service at departmental level—between the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government—to manage this very complex issue of different deals across the country, because of the heterogeneous nature of each of the areas involved. I am referring to the Cities and Local Growth Unit in central Government, but also to local government. The NAO wondered whether there was the capacity to deal with this sustainably. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) knows that on the Public Accounts Committee we have seen that, in straitened financial times, when we do not have a benign environment, there have been significant problems about the sustainability of big projects, whether they are projects involving fire control, the fire service and fire authorities, the police, further education in particular, or of course local government. That is the case now, so what will it be like when we have really big budgets and functions across different boundaries?
The question is this: will devolution of the
“planning and organising services across institutional and geographical boundaries…lead to more integrated and efficient services”?
That question was put by the NAO. One only has to look at the health economy in the eastern region—at the problems at Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, at Hinchingbrooke hospital, and at Peterborough City hospital—to see how difficult it has been to align geographical areas to clinical care and to work between acute district hospital care and primary care trusts. But we are looking to do something on a much bigger scale in the future.
Of course, I welcome some aspects of the proposal—the devolution of local transport budgets, skills, adult further education and business rate retention. However, there is a lack of specificity, as well as an ambiguity, about these proposals. The Government say that over time funding streams will be put in a single pot in sectors such as transport and local growth. However, the NAO says that
“the government needs to provide a clear statement of the new accountability arrangements…aligned and coherent across government…many of the assumptions about devolution deals are untested.”
That raises great concerns about scrutiny and oversight. We got rid of the Audit Commission six years ago. We do not have a body that can look in detail at the spending priorities of the elected mayor and his cabinet. It is no good saying that we will have a scrutiny panel of, frankly, under-resourced Back-Bench MPs and small district councils to oversee these huge budget decisions and infrastructure projects. That does not really wash. We only need to look at some of the problems about cronyism and inappropriate contracts in some academy chains, and most recently the problems with the fire and rescue service in Cambridgeshire, to see that without proper accountability and oversight things can go wrong.
We need to ask questions about why there is not a proper timetable and timeline. Also, there is no clear statement of objectives. The NAO says that the Government do not have
“a clear framework for how the deals will link to other ongoing localism initiatives.”
That is an important point. The NAO also says that
“The expected…pace of future devolution deals is not known at present.”
I do not want to take too much longer, but it is important to put this point to the Minister. It is not good enough to rely on good will and a statement of intent, which is what most of the deals now are relying on. As I said, we got rid of the Audit Commission and despite improvements there is not an effective process for accountability system statements. It is no good the DCLG saying that it is reviewing accountability system statements and that it does not require any more primary legislation for oversight. I do not think that that is good enough.
More importantly, given that this major issue is about driving up economic performance and macroeconomic strategy—that includes infrastructure, regeneration, new housing and so on—no performance or cost data are outlined at the centre so that economic performance can be properly measured. In particular, no data are outlined for the proposal’s value for money to be assessed.
I will finish with a few questions for the Minister. I know others want to speak. I say in passing that we are in the middle of the EU referendum campaign, and we take different sides. I believe that in politics most things are a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, but I have to say that it is strange that those most in favour of the European Union are those most in favour of this regional governance scheme. I wonder why that is. They include the council leaders who wrote to the East Anglian Daily Times saying how wonderful the European Union was about six weeks ago. The small print says that the new East Anglian combined authority would be the intermediate body for the European social fund and other European structural funds. I see the fingerprints of a well-known former Deputy Prime Minister all over the proposals. I am young, but I am way too cynical.
When will we see primary legislation come forward to allow the mayor to fund infrastructure through business rates? What non-statutory spatial framework and what local plans will be put in place? What non-statutory supplementary planning documents will be produced? What will the joint investment and asset board do? What will its powers, duties and responsibilities be? When will we see a garden town in Fenland or west Norfolk? When are we going to see a taught degree university in the city of Peterborough? That has been an omission by the Peterborough Development Corporation over the past 30 or 40 years.
Will the Minister tell us about flood defence and coastal management? Will he tell us about the potential role of the regional schools commissioner? A lot of people are concerned about that. Surely the employment and skills board will duplicate some of the work of the local enterprise partnership. There is also the Orwellian-sounding, Stalinist tractor organisation that is the productivity commission. No doubt the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) would like that organisation; it is right up his street. The productivity commission—very Fidel Castro.
I generally welcome what the Government are doing, but I think there is a compromise.
I thought I would try to get there before my hon. Friend started his peroration. He reminded me of a meeting I had with the Italian Minister for productive activities in Rome some years ago. Curiously enough, he was not responsible for fertility in Italy, although one might have thought he was.
Because I cannot stay until the end of the debate, I felt inhibited from making a speech, but I want to ask my hon. Friend one thing. Also, I do not want to have to listen to the Minister, who is a noted Eurosceptic, torturing the English language in defending the deal. Unfortunately, I have other commitments.
We have 330 district councillors in Norfolk. There are 293 in Suffolk and a further 286 in Cambridgeshire. That is a total of more than 900. There are 228 county councillors for the area, and 57 councillors in the unitary borough of Peterborough. That is a total of nearly 1,200 councillors in the three counties, which feels a little top-heavy. There are also the 6,000 or so parish councillors. That is something like 7,500 councillors altogether. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough had people queueing at his constituency surgeries—I certainly have not—demanding more elected representatives?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The need for an executive elected mayor is not the talk of the Dog and Duck in Peterborough, it is true. We have enough government and enough councillors. We do not need another tier of governance, as he has probably gathered from the tenor of my remarks.
Having said all that, the Government can rescue the situation with all the Cs: collaboration, consultation, clarity and coherence. If they can explain the role of the elected mayor, explain in a timely way how the passage towards powers and duties will work, create a timescale and show us that it is in the financial interest of our constituents to accept this new governance structure, we will be mindful of that and be prepared to be broadly supportive.
There is an alternative model, which would be to effectively have two greater local enterprise partnerships: one for Norfolk and Suffolk and one for Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and the city of Cambridge. That is a perfectly reasonable alternative model if the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government do not get fixated on population numbers, but instead go back to first principles, which is economic sustainability.
I offer my remarks with good will and a degree of cross-party support. I am not yet persuaded, but I may be in the future. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks. I hope he can specifically answer some of my queries and concerns.
Order. Due to Divisions, this debate will end at 5.54 pm. I intend to give the two Front Benchers 10 minutes each, so I will call the first at 5.34 pm. Six Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Doing the maths, they have around three minutes each, including interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate. Unusually, we might find ourselves in agreement on one or two issues today.
From my very first contribution in the House, I have been banging on not about Europe, but about the real and immediate challenges facing Cambridge on housing and transport. In the last year, the problems have only become more acute. We have some of the fastest rising house prices in the country—they are even outstripping London—and too many occasions when the city has been near gridlocked.
I am sorry to say that the policy response from the Government has made the situation worse. Cambridge City Council and local housing associations have rightly been horrified by the range of Government housing proposals that will dramatically reduce the already limited amount of affordable housing in the city and undermine the only recently agreed long-term business plan underpinning the building of new affordable homes for rent. Moreover, the much-vaunted city deal plan inherited from the previous Government has morphed into the mess before us today.
The devolution deal at the heart of this debate, while much trumpeted by the Government, is not much welcomed by anyone else. It is a devolution deal for Norfolk and Suffolk, with Cambridgeshire bolted on as a last-minute add-on, with an unwanted elected mayor bolted on top of that. Let us be clear: Cambridge and the surrounding area need the freedom to make the investments needed to tackle the housing and transport challenges.
A detailed case has been developed by the local business-led organisation Cambridge Ahead, and I urge the Minister to revisit it. “The Case for Cambridge” enjoyed strong local support across councils, local MPs, all sectors of business, the LEP, the chamber of commerce and our universities, which are a unique asset. Unfortunately, instead of responding to that locally agreed and developed proposal—the very bottom-up proposal that the Government sought—the Government instead came back late in the day with a completely different solution. They basically said, “You’ve got three weeks to take it or leave it.” The reaction was rightly furious. The LEP rejected it, business leaders rejected it, Cambridge City Council rejected it and Cambridgeshire County Council rejected it. So far as I am aware, only one district in the area has any real enthusiasm.
I do not have much time, so I will jump straight to my final conclusions, although I note in passing that the National Audit Office highlighted a discrepancy in funding between regions. Why does the west of England get £27 per capita additional investment per head, while in East Anglia we are offered just £13?
As a more optimistic conclusion, may I say that we need to get more flexibility and funding into the region? I suggest that the Minister look again at the suggestions coming from Cambridgeshire and the very special opportunities in Cambridge in particular. Why can those two deals not be folded into one? No one really wants your mayor, Minister. If we have to have it, I dare say they can be safely ignored. There is a much bigger prize for Cambridge. We can be the catalyst for UK prosperity. We are already hugely successful, but that future success is at risk. Of course there are always risks with major investments—we know that, and we have explained how those can be underwritten. Cambridge is up to the task, but as it stands we do not have the powers we need.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), with whom I agree entirely. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate.
Ministers have done an excellent job on devolution. I support devolution, which is an absolute natural partner to localism—I think that was the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge—and localism is all about buy-in from local people. In Norfolk, we have an affinity to Norfolk. We love it and are passionate about it. The same is true of people in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We have no affinity to a concept such as East Anglia. In a metropolitan area, people have a sense of belonging to a city. The idea works very well in London, Manchester and Birmingham, but the proposal for an elected mayor of East Anglia will not gain public support, and that is why it is my red line.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough mentioned, we opposed Lord Prescott’s regional assemblies. We were very anti the regional spatial strategies. According to the agreement signed by the 23 council leaders, the mayor will have some reserve powers over housing. Any change has to command public support. At a time when local government is cutting back on many third sector organisations—I can think of the citizens advice bureau in my constituency, transport for the disabled and mental health charities—it is not going to look kindly on us for putting in place a very expensive fifth tier of local government.
When council leaders say that the proposal will be cost-effective, that some of the personnel will be stripped out of existing councils and that it will not cost anything extra, what planet are they living on? This will be an opportunity for empire building. It will be a very costly tier of local government. The Government say that they will take out another tier. I am a veteran of at least three campaigns on unitary government. They are very divisive and difficult. It is far better to have collaboration and co-operation between councils. We can then move forward on that basis.
Ministers overlook the political sovereignty of MPs. We have sovereignty on our own patch to convene meetings to get things done or to stop things happening. Frankly, I do not want an elected mayor barging into my constituency and saying, “Henry, you’ve been a bad boy. You don’t want these houses or this incinerator in your constituency, but we would like you to have them. I am a regional mayor with a mandate from a turnout of all of 5%.”
I am afraid I will not because I must press on.
I put it to the Minister that there is an alternative. There are 23 council leaders, two LEPs and three PCCs. They can get together and select or elect a head honcho to carry forward the devolution process and oversee the strategic transport fund that is going to be put in place. It will be seen as an administrative arrangement, not another tier of government. It will be a Tory solution to the demand that we have devolution. If the Government go down that route and let it work for perhaps two, three or four years, we can see whether there is a democratic deficit and people are crying out for an elected mayor and revisit the matter. But if they insist on pushing ahead with the elected mayor part of the proposals, I fear they will fail. There is an alternative, and I hope the Minister will embrace it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and a privilege to speak after my fellow Norfolk MP, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham).
When the devolution initiative was first proposed, I had an open mind. Like Councillor George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, and Councillor Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, I wanted it to work. Lord Heseltine’s devolution report, which was published a little while ago, was quite clear that previous devolution attempts had failed because they were top down. He said that it would be different this time because local areas would write their own deal. That was what was promised, and it was on that basis that many councillors approached the initiative with a good conscience, thinking they could work with it, whatever their political party.
Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Councillor George Nobbs was a staunch supporter of the initial efforts. He wrote a letter to Lord Heseltine in which he said:
“Like you I have been an enthusiastic believer of devolving power from central to local government all of my adult life. However I feel that I should share with you, not just my views, but those of some of my fellow councillors, and ask for your help…You will know that there is widespread opposition to the concept of an elected Mayor, disquiet about the perceived rush to meet government deadlines and concern about a consultation to be held in July and August of all months. The financial incentives that are dangled in front of us, only to be threatened with withdrawal if there is any dissent, are in any case considered inadequate by many.”
We have to accept that if we are to have real devolution, we need real financial power for our local authorities and communities, which is not on offer in the deal. The past 35 years have seen centralisation by Whitehall and Westminster. In 1979, local authorities raised 75% of their own funding; they now raise less than 20%. The deal on the table goes nowhere near the level of fiscal independence required—a fact that so many councillors can now see. The meagre amount local authorities can raise from business rates was undermined in the most recent Budget when the Chancellor took money from them.
For cities in our region—economic powerhouses such as Norwich, Cambridge and Ipswich—there is little to no incentive for devolution.
Of course! I am sorry. How could I forget Peterborough?
Where is the control for local authorities over their own housing revenue accounts? Where is their control over the right to buy or the right to stay? Those would be the most effective ways to allow local authorities to build more of the affordable homes that are so desperately needed by so many people and that are acting as a bottleneck to economic progress.
Ultimately, if we want real devolution, we have to devolve control from central Government, which is increasing, to local government, and give local government the financial ability to do something with it. It is about empowering local authorities and local communities. As things stand, that is simply not happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this timely debate. Many concerns have been expressed and points raised, and I agree with many of them, particularly the point about police and crime commissioners. We are about to have a PCC election in Suffolk. As I understand it, the Mayor of London is the PCC for London. In a year’s time, are we going to be electing someone who will take over the functions of the three recently elected PCCs? I would like to know, because among the biggest concerns of all Members present are the layers of government.
I cannot go into too much detail—I have had to remove layers of my speech—but, notwithstanding all the concerns we have heard, we do need to be aware of the big picture. The Government have got it right—if not in all the detail then certainly in the thrust of the policy—on two points. First, let us not forget what happened in the referendum on the future of the United Kingdom. After that referendum, a promise was made to the people of Scotland and, at the same time, a promise was made to the people of England that we would get devolution—real power in local areas. The Conservative party is trying to deliver on that promise, and that is absolutely right.
Secondly, this country has a long-standing fundamental weakness: it has been completely over-centralised in London and its economy has been over-centralised in London and the south-east. We have paid a heavy price for that, with many parts of the country far poorer than London and the south-east. It would not be easy to deliver, but the key to solving the problem is infrastructure and long-term, sustainable economic growth for our region. If devolution could deliver that, it would be a victory for young people in our communities.
My final point is about rail. I think it is fair to say that the biggest economic weakness in our region is our railways. They are very poor, but we have a franchise going through. There has been talk of the reunification of the track and the operator, so that they would be run by the same body. If that were introduced, I would certainly support it, because the fragmentation between Network Rail and whichever franchisee is a problem. The regional government could then have a role, which would give us far greater strategic control over rail. That would be a welcome benefit. We must remember the potential positives, while asking questions on the key issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing the debate. I am a supporter of devolution, but on the feedback I receive from Suffolk, and from my constituency in particular, a lot of work needs to be done to ensure that the devolution deal has local support and will work. There is concern that the deal is being rushed in a way that adds bureaucratic complexity and blurs the lines of accountability.
As we have heard, much of Cambridgeshire is opposed to the deal at present and the idea of an elected mayor does not currently have public support. There is concern that another layer of local government is being added and the challenge of considering removing a tier is being sidestepped. If there is to be a mayor, we need to consider carefully their role and responsibilities, and how those will tie in with the work that councils will continue to do. What happens to the police and crime commissioners? Who will be responsible for the other blue-light services? How can national and local government best work together to meet the health and social care challenge of an ageing population, which is a huge issue in East Anglia?
There are many unanswered questions. There is a need for a pause to allow us to work with local people to produce a long-term strategic plan for East Anglian devolution. We must confront the devil in the detail now, and come up with a proposal that will have public support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for bringing forward this important debate. Much of what I have to say has been gone over by other Members, but I reiterate the view of my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) that devolution in principle is the prize, and we should not lose sight of that prize. It is highly important that we get there.
On the NAO report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough alluded, there is the retort to it that a lack of structure gives areas the ability to drive their own futures. That is an important point, because as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, we have slightly different structural pressures. The need for housing in Cambridge is acute, and that bears down on my constituency, but the partnership working that devolution offers us gives us the ability to move that forward and to help each other positively and productively.
We have the benefit of living in one of the best areas of the country—one of the primary areas for health, wealth, food and energy. We are an area for bioscience innovation. We would like what is put forward to be innovative. Innovation in devolution is an exciting concept. With Cambridge University sat in the heart of our region and the University of East Anglia in Norwich leading in life sciences, and agri-tech in particular, we ought to grab such opportunities and drive them forward, because that is the innovation that will help with the health and social care issues that we will have in the future.
We have infrastructure needs in broadband, housing, roads and rail. Nothing has been given back to us, while we have contributed to the Treasury for years—we will give it £2.2 billion this year and up to £8 billion by 2020—so we would like a little more. The potential lever of £900 million is great, but we would like to know what else there is. Unlocking the potential of businesses throughout our region is the prize here. We want to drive forward entrepreneurship and access markets through measures such as enterprise zones, growth hubs and productivity plans.
Innovation can be a game changer, and I am glad to see Andy Wood’s appointment as an independent chair, because that is a huge move forward. I was pleased to learn that, only this morning, a positive meeting of leaders from across our region was held; they are starting to build a shared vision. Work is going on to look at monetary value. There are problems, but if we can have a common vision, with layers of government, business, universities and civil society working to shared goals, we could really set the scene, as a first mover.
One of our primary problems is the lack of love for yet another layer of government. We have gone over that, and I am sure that we can discuss that going forward, but I do not want us to cut ourselves off at the knees and not give ourselves the chance for discussion. There are many concerns about the proposal; I am sure that the Minister will say whether there is a more moderated approach. Whatever the arrangements, it is important that any leader has defined powers but entertains a collaborative role and works with other local leaders to deliver.
I advise caution on the points that have been made. We must put meat on the bones of this deal to see whether it stacks up for people in our constituencies. I would like to know whether there is one deal for the combined area—Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire—or no deal. That sharp focus might incentivise us to get to the point of devolution: it should be iterative, and it should unlock potential and opportunity. As in Manchester, we should be able to come back to the table to ask the Government for more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for securing this important debate.
I have listened carefully to the debate, and I hope the Minister responds clearly to the genuine concerns raised by hon. Members, many of whom are on his side of the Chamber. When the Chancellor stood up in the House on 16 March to declare triumphantly that his Government had agreed a single powerful East Anglia combined authority, headed by an elected mayor with almost £1 billion of new investment, he was of course wrong. There was no agreement in place. There was only a document signed by council leaders agreeing that they would run the proposed deals through their respective councils and perform public consultation. That was enough for the Chancellor to stand before the nation and declare that the devolution revolution was taking hold. Just days later, the East Anglia devolution agreement began to fall apart.
The Conservative-administered Cambridgeshire County Council voted overwhelmingly, by 64 votes to zero, not to accept the plans. The Minister will be aware that that is not the only deal in disarray. This is more a rebellion than a revolution. Of the 38 devolution proposals from cities, town and counties across England, only 10 have materialised into plans. Many fell at the first hurdle because they disagreed with the Government’s insistence on a directly elected mayor. As we have heard today, this is one of the main problems with the East Anglia deal.
The whole point of devolution is to move away from over-centralised governance, to award more powers to local areas, to create more accountability, to improve the democratic process and to open up a dialogue between central Government and local government about what will work best for an area to bring decision making closer to its people. Council leaders have told me, as they told my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), that they were promised that devolution would be a bottom-up process based on those principles, yet the Government have taken a heavy-handed, top-down, dictatorial approach.
The geographical area covered by this deal makes it the largest of all devolution deals; it covers the three counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and spanning almost 5,000 square miles. No other deal comes near the expected collaboration requirements. Of the 23 local authorities, 22 have been lumped together. That is more than double the number of local authorities working together in any of the other deals. Common sense should dictate that it is ridiculous to expect 22 local authorities to work together, headed by one elected mayor, when each county has vastly different needs.
Suffolk was promised its own deal, but that was reneged on at the last minute. Cambridgeshire requested its own devolution deal, but was told that the Chancellor would not accept one-county deals. Then Greater Lincolnshire was awarded its own one-county deal. Norfolk and Suffolk asked for £75 million per annum for 30 years. Instead, they gained a county at the last moment, when Cambridgeshire reluctantly joined the deal and everyone was offered £1 billion over 30 years. That might sound good, but when one drills down, it is a modest sum of just over £30 million a year, over 22 local authority areas.
In short, this deal, like many others, is a complete shambles. It is all smoke and mirrors—giving with one hand and taking away with the other. There is huge unease at the speed with which the deal is being pushed through. There is significant pressure on local authorities to develop and complete the necessary work to set up the combined authority before they have had a chance to consult their councillors, let alone the public. Will the Minister comment on the timetable and confirm whether this proposal has been processed so quickly because of the Government’s obsession with having elected mayors in place by May 2017?
Places such as Manchester have had half a decade to progress their deals, but the councils in the east of England have been given seven months. Why will the Government not give those councils adequate time to allow the process to be democratic and fair? Having an elected mayor for a large rural area covering three counties is an unprecedented constitutional innovation. It is untried and untested, and that mayor is likely to be democratically remote. It is difficult enough for counties to get behind the idea of having one mayor covering one county, and unthinkable that one person could cover the needs and demands of three counties with diverse communities, complex internal geography, and varied urban and rural hubs.
Councils have made it clear that they do not want such an arrangement. The Communities and Local Government Committee has said that elected mayors are not an “easy fit” for non-metropolitan areas, and it believes that councils and their local populations should have the right to choose whether to have one. We heard today about some of the many alternatives, such as the one in Cornwall, but the Government continue to insist on elected mayors.
The East Anglia deal is insubstantial. Although the Government entice signatories by promising to devolve more powers at some unspecified future date, those powers are subject to negotiation with the Treasury, not enshrined in statute. Promises can and, given this Government’s track record, will be withdrawn. The elected mayor is the only statutory creation, and once elected, the mayor will be a fixture on the political landscape, even if these devolution deals, as they are currently envisaged, collapse.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, housing is critical in the east of England, but it was offered as a devolved power only as an afterthought, just two days before this deal was signed. The £175 million housing investment fund was thrown in on the condition that there was a fast-track timetable in place for an elected mayor by 2017, but that was not the only condition. In the draft deal, that £175 million is earmarked largely for shared-ownership homes—homes that we know are beyond the means of many people and will not address the issue of the affordability of housing. This Government’s assault on council housing continues. That is yet another example of how their version of devolution is actually about delegation.
There is no real fiscal devolution here. Cuts will continue to be made to local authority budgets, yet councils will be expected to support a combined authority with reduced resources and capacity. Draft deals have only been signed because council leaders who genuinely care about their areas want real devolution and want to make it work. For that, they need a Government who want the same thing, but I fear that this Government do not.
When it was in power in Scotland and Wales, Labour achieved real devolution. We did not rush things through at lightning speed, and we did not expect huge decisions to be made that would affect communities and governance for decades. We had robust public consultation, and we would not have introduced new tiers of governance without allowing time for scrutiny and due diligence. We certainly would not have conducted devolution veiled in secrecy behind closed doors, or imposed last-minute changes from the centre.
The sad truth is that the appetite for devolution among councils and the public is incredibly strong, but this Government are failing to harness that or, as noted in a recent National Audit Office report, clearly articulate what exactly they are trying to achieve through these deals. The upshot is that we, local authorities and, most importantly, members of the public, on whom such deals will impact, do not know what the Government are trying to achieve. Yet again, we are seeing a masterclass in undemocratic process, which is leaving councils feeling like they are engaged in a Faustian pact.
I know that several Members here are not in favour of the devolution plan that is on the table. Is the hon. Lady aware, however, that some councils are in favour of it? Her speech is a little one-sided. For example, I represent two district councils, including one for East Cambridgeshire, which is very much in favour of the deal. Some questions must be asked, and we would all like some more money, but will she acknowledge that there is some support for devolution?
I will acknowledge that there is some support, but my role is to scrutinise the Government and to express concerns, so that is what I am using my time for today.
To sum up, will the Minister, once and for all, come clean about the real purpose of the deals? How do they serve the interests of the public, rather than of the Government?
We have had an interesting debate, with a wide range of contributions from Members with different party backgrounds and outlooks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing it. He is greatly exercised about the issue, but that is because he is well informed about it. He has asked some important questions, as have other hon. Members, and I will try to address them as best I can in the limited time available.
I will reconfirm one point for the record, which is that any accusation that I am a European Union stooge is far from the mark. I stand here as a Minister speaking on behalf of the Government, but the EU is a matter on which the Government and I have rather different views. I have maintained my view for some time, and it continues to be my position. That feeds into the comments my hon. Friend made about intermediate body status, because as it happens, I am also the Minister with responsibility for the European regional development fund—an interesting role to have at this time. I assure him that on this point there is no conspiracy, and the intermediate body status is not part of a greater plot, as he might suspect. I am happy to talk to him on another occasion, at as much length as he might desire, to reassure him of that.
Devolution is exciting. It has been offered to the country as a whole; 38 different areas have said they want to be part of it, and this Government are doing it differently from the Labour Government, who in previous attempts tried to force regional assemblies on to people, first of all in the north-east, where I am from. At the time, I was very much involved in the campaign against the regional assembly, and I was close to the detail, but I am closer still to the detail of what we are doing now and discussing today, and I can assure hon. Members that this devolution really is quite different. It is driven by people in the areas to which devolution is being offered, and it is based on geographies that they determine, through discussion, and on the powers that they want.
I am happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. The Government have made a deal, and signatures were added to the document. We want to deliver on that deal and to meet the obligations to which we are committed by the deal, but we do not expect or plan to reopen discussions and to start again. Other areas want to talk about devolution and to secure deals of their own. It is very positive that East Anglia is forging so far ahead with that policy agenda, but we must recognise that if areas want to go back on deals that have been agreed and want to reinvent them before they have been enacted, we will have to look at the allocation of our time and resources to other areas that have not yet reached agreement and need attention and focus.
To be absolutely clear, I thought I heard music to my ears a moment ago—that devolution deals should come from the regions that want them. Given that all the parties that have signed a tentative document are not happy, for whatever reasons, what is stopping us from going back to the drawing board? I think what would work for us all would be Suffolk and Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire-Peterborough-Huntingdon. With that, we could find real traction and make things happen quickly.
I am conscious of time, but I want to be very clear: a deal has been agreed, on a geography that has been agreed, and it is not the intention of the Government to reopen discussions of geography. We will not compel any area to agree a devolution deal, and we do not have that power—the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 does not allow the Government to do so, and nor would we want to. If devolution is to last, it must be done with local agreement. When those agreements are reached, however, just as local areas expect us to meet our obligations as a Government, we expect them to deliver the devolution deals to which they have agreed.
In principle, I am signed up to devolution, but is this issue worth considering? The first step towards delivering a deal that works for all is recognising that there are some initial natural synergies that can be delivered through local councils working much more effectively together at both regional and local level. Some of the mergers that are planned—for example, between Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils, and perhaps in the future Babergh and Mid Suffolk—may be a very desirable way of bringing about closer working in a way that also delivers something that local people want.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We want to see collaboration—local authorities working together. We want to see local authorities finding and driving efficiencies, so that they can focus on the services from which our residents benefit. Devolution is part of that picture—it can facilitate and encourage that process—but we want local authorities to do that regardless of the devolutionary landscape. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) talked about collaboration and co-operation, and rightly so. That was born of his experience of local government, of which he spoke. It is important that local areas look to see where they can best co-operate and what the right areas of co-operation are for them in their particular circumstances.
I have to make progress. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) asked particularly about police and crime commissioners. The legislation is quite clear. It is possible for elected mayors to take on the roles currently exercised by police and crime commissioners, but only where the police forces in question are coterminous with the devolution areas. That does not mean that if a devolution agreement is for an area that has more than one local police force or crosses the boundaries of different forces, it would be impossible to go down that route, but it would require a number of additional steps, in terms of local force reorganisation, that are not currently planned for by the Government. If there were demand from the local area to do something along those lines, of course we would welcome any discussion that would help to meet the desires and ambitions of that community.
That question was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who made the very important point that we must work for local support. We must explain why devolution matters. We must explain to people that this is not about taking powers up and away from local authorities. The previous incarnation of local government mayors, created under Labour, very often took powers from local authorities into a single elected person. This is about a single elected person taking powers down from Government, away from civil servants and away from Ministers—even ones as benevolent and helpful as I can be at times. Instead, there is recognition that perhaps sometimes decisions are best made by people who understand and are from the communities most directly affected by them.
A number of hon. Members asked about the scope of the deal. Is it sufficiently ambitious? Does it cover the areas that it would want to? What does it actually mean if the area finds additional things that it wants to do? Greater Manchester is indeed a case in point. These processes are iterative. The deal, the election of the mayor and the implementing of devolution are steps on a journey, and that journey can continue to expand. Greater Manchester is now, I think, on its fourth round of asks for additional powers. We would look to—and, indeed, want to—continue to talk with areas that have agreed devolution about the further powers that they might want, and the things that they could do with those powers to improve their economy and the lives of the people who live in the communities served by—
I apologise to my hon. and learned Friend, but I must wrap up, given the time constraints. We can see that there is great interest in this process—great interest in devolution. Devolution is an important part of Government policy. We know that it must be done with local support. Deals are two-way processes. If we are to deliver deals that last, we need that local support and understanding. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues on both sides of the House to ensure that this important policy objective, which can benefit the communities that we all represent, is not only delivered, but lasts the course.
It is clear that there is a broad welcome for the central concept of devolution, albeit multi-speed and multi-layer. It is clear, though, that unlike places such as Cornwall and Manchester, East Anglia is not based on established geographical and institutional arrangements and things such as coterminous local enterprise partnerships and healthcare economies.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).