The Sunday Long Read
Britain has one of the most centralised systems of government in Europe. A host of decisions affecting local communities are made in Westminster, with limited consideration of local interests. Good local ideas are dismissed because they don’t fit a national plan, and local government spends weeks bidding for money from ministers’ pet projects cooked up in Whitehall. The result is often policies which work for some places, and are disastrous in others. Meanwhile, local priorities remain ignored.
Even in Westminster, there is cross-party agreement that government would be improved if some of these decisions were made closer to the people directly affected, although the Labour Party’s proposals are more radical.
Bringing decisions closer to the people was the aim when powers were devolved to Scotland and Wales in 1998; to Manchester and Cornwall in 2014; and since then to a number of other regions and cities. Nearly half of England is now covered by some form of devolution, though the models adopted are different in different places.
A new round of devolution
In 2022, as part of its “levelling up” agenda, the government invited devolution bids from ten further areas, including Norfolk and Suffolk. While the focus of previous deals was on economic benefits, the objectives are now wider, to “secure a healthy sustainable recovery”. Ministers now talk of equalising health, skills and life chances, and making progress towards net zero.
Previous devolution deals grouped a number of local authorities with a new elected mayor. This was the model used in the only previous deal in the East: the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. But in the case of Norfolk, the deal would be with a single county council.
The Conservative group on Norfolk County Council has been negotiating with the government on how such a deal might work for the county, and the government has approved a plan in principle. This has now been published for consultation on what might be devolved and how. Individuals and organisations can respond in writing or online, and the county council are now holding consultative events across the county. The consultation closes on 20 March.
How would a devolved Norfolk be governed?
In Norfolk, the plan is that, rather than creating new elected bodies, the existing county council would be given some new funds, and a series of new powers, especially over transport, housing and skills.
Under the plan the leader of the county council would be elected directly by all the voters in Norfolk, instead of being chosen by the councillors of the ruling party as at present. The current “cabinet” system of government would continue. This means that the budget and broad policies would be agreed by the full council, but the elected leader would be responsible for implementing those policies, supported, as at present, by a “cabinet” of councillors chosen by the leader, to take oversee specific areas of work.
No change is proposed in the functions and powers of the district councils. The devolved county council would continue to liaise with them through a Leaders’ Group. They also plan to convene a larger Public Sector Leaders’ Board, bringing together the county, districts, NHS, the Police and Crime Commissioner, the Broads Authority and third sector organisations.
The key financial difference is that the county council would have discretion over how to spend a number of new funds. So, for example, while district councils would continue to be responsible for housing, the county would be able to contribute funds for new developments, including regeneration and building on brownfield land. Another example is transport, where the county would have new funds, and more discretion over how to use them. No longer would national rules decide how much can be spent on filling potholes and how much on improving bus services. Those decisions would be taken in Norfolk.
How much money is on offer?
At this stage, a little over £80 million of funds would be given to the county to carry out the new functions. The main elements are:
£20 million a year of investment funding “to drive growth and take forward priorities”. Unlike most central government funding, how it is invested will be decided at county level
£7 million (one-off) to build housing on brownfield land
£6 million (one-off) for housing, regeneration and development
£10 million devolution of the adult education budget (except apprenticeships and traineeships)
£40 million for transport and maintenance
What are the issues?
The proposals have come in for criticism from four district councils, who object to the way the deal has been negotiated, bearing in mind that key elements of the new deal involve legal responsibilities of district councils. South Norfolk, Broadland, Breckland and North Norfolk Districts have sent a joint “letter before action” to the Conservative county council leader Andrew Proctor, announcing their intention to seek a judicial review to challenge the process. The leaders stress that they are in favour of devolution but not convinced that this is the best way of doing it.
There have also been objections to the proposals from some of the county’s MPs. South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss has said:
“I have spoken with county and district leaders, and my colleagues in Norfolk, about the proposed deal. I remain concerned about the lack of borough and district council involvement in the negotiations and the deal’s governance model. We need collaborative and accountable governance with fully devolved and integrated powers. Without these changes, Norfolk cannot take control of its own destiny.”
There are also objections that the decision to launch the public consultation was made by the County Council’s Cabinet, and the rest of the councillors could not vote on it. The Labour leader on the county council has called for a special council meeting with the aim of stopping the current consultation and renegotiating the deal with the government. Steve Morphew, leader of the opposition Labour group, has demanded a special council meeting to discuss starting the negotiations again. He said:
“Calling a special council to ask for the consultation to be redone properly is the only way we can give councillors a voice and flag up to residents of Norfolk what’s being done in their names and behind their backs. No major changes should be contemplated without transparent and full disclosure. The deal on offer is poor. Trying to disguise that with selective information and closing down the chance to reach informed conclusions cannot cover up the inherent weakness in the deal.”
A further objection is to the scale of money involved. Initially the new funds would amount to only 5% of the county council budget, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens have called the deal a “damp squib”. They argue that the sums involved are tiny compared with the needs of the county. Paul Cockrell, the county’s Executive Director for Strategy and Transformation says that the amount per head of population is very comparable with previous devolution deals in the rest of the country. The current leader, who has led the negotiation, points out that in previous rounds of devolution elsewhere, the powers and funds have been gradually expanded as the devolved administrations have become established. He hopes that the same would happen here. Others are more sceptical.
There are also potential political traps, including tensions between the leader and council, and between county and city. The plan is for the new leader to be elected in May 2024, but all opinion polls suggest a large swing to Labour. So it is possible that the current Conservative-led council, which will continue to serve until the following year, will be led by a Labour leader. Will the cabinet be drawn from the largest (Conservative) party, or the (Labour) opposition? Furthermore, like many large counties, Norfolk has historically been a Conservative county surrounding a Labour-led city. The city is the primary driver of the economy but has only a quarter of the County’s population. These issues all point to political conflicts, especially during the first year of devolution.
The consultation is open to individuals and organisations until 20th March. The council is organising a series of consultative events around the county, where staff are available to discuss the plans and answer questions. Now is your chance to tell the council what you think.
The consultation results will be analysed and reported to the cabinet, who will decide whether to submit them to the government. In December the full council will vote on whether to proceed. If they decide to do so, we will be electing a new County Leader in May of next year. If not, the plan will be abandoned and we will carry on as at present.