Suffolk Devolution – a brief case against

At the Suffolk Devolution debate in July , county councillors broke party lines to speak and vote their mind – and voted in favour of the offered  Norfolk/Suffolk devolution deal.  The deal is now up to consultation from the public.  Whatever your views on the Suffolk/Norfolk DEVOLUTION deal,they won’t be taken into account unless you respond to the consultation.
The formal consultation has now finished but it is still possible to respond until the end of October 2016: details here

I was among among 20 county councillors who – after much thought -opposed  the deal (despite personal support for the concept of Devolution). While I approve of giving local authorities more control over spending, this proposal leaves much  of the crucial decision-making with the government. These are the most pressing reasons in brief

Overview   Those in favour of Suffolk devolution see it as a good opportunity to take control of a wider range of services – including aspects of health and social care integration – for the greater benefit of the county. The government has not has the interest in rural counties it should have had and they are certain we can do it better.

While agreeing with this in principle, my concerns are:

  • the clear democratic deficit  this devolution deal will offer – governance by an overarching authority that will consist of one member from every council (probably the leader);
  • the thorny question of an elected Mayor and all the extra bureaucracy that would go with that post;
  • the relative smallness of the sums on offer from the government;
  • 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
  • finally, the fact that Devolution was very much Cameron and Osborne’s baby. With both  now yesterday’s men, and the complications of Brexit now likely to occupy much of the next few years, will there be any appetite, time, or money in central government for continuing this at this time?

Democratic Deficit  Many Suffolk County Councillors  – on all sides of the political spectrum – voiced the concern that a Mayor, elected by around 15% of the population and working with leaders (or representatives chosen by the leaders) from just the largest parties in the County, District and Borough Councils would only represent the views of something like 30% of the population.

Additional Bureaucracy  Devolution will mean that 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., responsible for Flood defence & Coastal Management – Learning Skills, Education, Apprentices & Employment – Business Support – Health & Social Care – Public Service Reform – Housing & Planning -Transport – Electronic Communications.  This would  -in effect – create a fourth tier of Local Government.

Relative Smallness of Sums on Offer The biggest offer is a single pot of £750m to invest in infrastructure, economic growth and jobs dispensed as £25m a year for 30 years – that is, £12.5m a year each for Norfolk and Suffolk .

In terms of the requirements for all that extra required housing, road costs alone make this derisory. In 2009, the 22miles of new A14 were expected to cost £1billion : £50m per mile. £12.5 m will buy 440 yards of new road!

Devolved Responsibility for Enforcing Difficult Governmental Decisions  For example the Government intends that from 2017 the devolved authority will enforce the governmental diktat that every young person must be ‘earning or learning’. Fine in theory – but of course we know there are certain young people who through no fault of their own will be neither earning nor learning, those whose physical or cognitive conditions make either impossible. I have raised the issue of what we are to do about this – are we going to be expected to sanction such young people on behalf of the government? Or are we going to have to make a choice between letting them starve or funding them from money we find elsewhere because the government doesn’t recognise they exist? There was no answer.

The Housing Problem  The deal demands Suffolk and Norfolk produce 200,000 houses over period of the deal. Does Suffolk  needs 100,000 houses (or more – the Norfolk/Suffolk split is not mentioned) and where will they go? Who would they be for? 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 .

Suffolk badly needs specific types of housing which is not being built. We specifically need starter homes, houses for rent, disability-specific housing, and accommodation for older people wanting to downsize – all for a population already living in Suffolk and who have greater need  to be close to transport links and facilities than the rest of us. (And whose needs are not being catered for). Our towns, roads and commuter rail are  already congested. How will our county cope with growth of this magnitude?

Having said which, under the devolution deal 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 (that’s, £15m – a less than munificent 150 extra houses for social rent in the whole of Norfolk and Suffolk!!!).  Finally, £30m is offered  for Norwich and Ipswich housing over five years (in other words, £3m a year each -about 30 houses) which 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 some certainty on funding that is currently not possible but is still just a small portion of the funding needed.

One would have to rely on the Combined Authority to be interested in, say, rural buses.  Judging by the past record of Suffolk, I cannot say that I have any confidence from anything I have heard so far that this will be the case.

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Caroline Page, County Councillor for Woodbridge