West Norfolk MP accuses government of using EU vote to push through devolution

Election Count at Lynnsport King's Lynn'Henry Bellingham ANL-150805-111717009
Election Count at Lynnsport King's Lynn'Henry Bellingham ANL-150805-111717009
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A West Norfolk MP has accused the government of using the EU referendum to help force through its controversial devolution proposals.

Councillors are set to debate the plans for a new combined authority covering Norfolk and Suffolk next week.

But, while borough and county officials have called for members to support the scheme, North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham has urged them to reject it.

And he claims officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) are relying on the European debate to deflect scrutiny away from the plans.

He said: “It’s a crazy time to push through a massive constitutional change. They’re doing it while people are distracted by the referendum. It’s cynical and wrong.”

The department did not respond directly to Sir Henry’s claims in a statement released yesterday afternoon.

But a spokesman said: “This Government welcomes the ambitions of any area that wants to take substantial powers and resources away from Whitehall.

“Devolution proposals for East Anglia were first announced at Budget in March, and it has been for local leaders to debate, consult and ratify any proposed deal.

“The Government will only enter into a devolution deal where an area demonstrates strong governance and clear accountability.”

Norfolk County Council will debate the latest proposals to devolve powers from central government on Monday. West Norfolk Council is due to examine the ideas next Thursday.

And officials at both authorities say their leaders should be given the go-ahead to sign a new devolution agreement before a public consultation is undertaken.

The plans allow for £25 million of annual funding to the two counties for 30 years, £5 million less than what was previously on the table for Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough put together.

It also offers £130 million of investment in housing, over the next five years, plus £225 million for transport.

The body would also take charge of apprenticeship and skills funds, worth more than £20 million a year, and be expected to take a leading role in areas including health, flood defence and phone and internet connectivity.

A report published ahead of the borough council’s meeting said: “If the authority withdraws at this stage, it will lose the opportunity to develop the benefits of the devolution process and may lose access to future government resources and the local determination of policy and spending priorities.

“It will also deny its residents the opportunity to have their say.”

But Sir Henry said there was no public support for the proposals, claiming he had yet to meet a single person who was in favour of them.

He also suggested that anyone who believed the measures would mean extra investment in the borough could “dream on”, despite the promise of extra funds for the new authority.

He pointed out that the central government grants paid to authorities like West Norfolk are gradually being phased out and claimed the money proposed was only a fraction of that being saved.

He said: “This is smoke and mirrors. It’s giving with one hand and taking away with the other hand. It’s a complete con, to be honest.”

Sir Henry, a consistent critic of the plan for an elected mayor to head the devolved structures, also claimed it was an “insult” to Norfolk that it would only have a mayor in combination with Suffolk, while Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire were having their own separate mayors.