Scepticism grows over East Anglia devolution proposals

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Plans to set up a new combined authority covering West Norfolk have suffered a blow after Cambridgeshire’s county councillors rejected the idea.

The move comes amid growing unease about the scheme, which hundreds have now signed an online petition against.

Election Count at Lynnsport King's Lynn
Henry Bellingham ANL-150805-111717009

Election Count at Lynnsport King's Lynn Henry Bellingham ANL-150805-111717009

But, although they insist the body will be funded by new investment, the government also remains adamant it will have a directly elected mayor, despite increasing opposition.

And Norfolk County Council officials have insisted that local representatives will have the chance to scrutinise the plans when they are finalised.

Draft proposals outlining the proposed new authority for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire were outlined in last week’s Budget.

But, since then, there have been growing doubts over the merits of the plan.

The most dramatic show of scepticism so far came on Tuesday, when Cambridgeshire County Council voted 64 to nil, with just one abstention, in favour of a motion describing the deal as “unacceptable” in its current form.

That came after North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham urged ministers to drop the idea of an elected mayor, which he claimed would “wreck a very good Budget”, and instead appoint a dedicated regional minister.

Speaking in a Commons debate on Monday, Sir Henry said he supported the idea of devolution, but added: “I regard the plan to bring in elected mayors with extreme suspicion.”

He argued the mayor, who is set to be elected in May next year, would seek to build his or her own “empire” and the move could lead to the resurrection of proposed regional assemblies.

But Treasury minister Harriet Baldwin insisted: “An elected mayor will be the single point of accountability.”

However, she said the planned annual £30 million infrastructure budget for the new authority would be made up of new money.

But her comments did little to persuade political figures in West Norfolk.

North West Norfolk Labour secretary Jo Rust said that, although the Labour-led Norfolk County Council adminstration backs the idea, she is worried about the implications for local MPs to represent their communities and about how and where money would be spent.

She said: “My fear is it will lead to less money for those areas which need it.”

Michael de Whalley, of the West Norfolk Green Party, added: “The more we look into it, the more concerns we have about it. It doesn’t look to be very beneficial for Norfolk.”

Meanwhile, more than 500 people have now signed an online petition, launched at the weekend, calling for the devolution proposals to be withdrawn until full public consultation, including a referendum, is undertaken.

However, a Norfolk County Council spokesman said: “There will be a full engagement programme in the summer across all three counties.

“Any proposals will go to each and every full council across the three counties at least twice for the consideration of elected members.”