Shadow chancellor says Labour wants to create Suffolk/Norfolk eastern “powerhouse”
A combined Suffolk and Norfolk eastern “powerhouse” could be created by Labour with devolved transport and skills powers from Westminster.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said it would “make sense” for the district and county councils to join forces as a “county region” with a “joint plan” for the area.
While he made clear there was a debate to be had about where a combined authority boundary would lie, he said powers would be up for grabs.
Combined authorities already exist; in Greater Manchester 10 councils joined forces in 2011 and are set to get major powers and an elected mayor.
Chancellor George Osborne said in his Autumn Statement on Wednesday that his “door was open” to other cities that wanted to follow suit.
But Mr Balls said it would be ridiculous for the Norfolk and Suffolk area to have one elected person and it should not miss out on the same powers and “accept a second class deal”.
“We need a Midlands powerhouse, a Northern powerhouse, we need a Eastern region Norfolk/Suffolk powerhouse,” he said.
Ipswich council leader David Ellesmere, who was a strong supporter of a unitary authority for Ipswich, welcomed what he described as the “commitment of the Labour Party to real devolution of powers and revenue to local areas”.
He added: “It may well make sense for counties to work closer together – Suffolk and Norfolk are already doing this in the New Anglia LEP.”
But he said there was a “big question” over how it would work in practice in areas with two-tier local government as there was a “real imbalance between the resources of district and county councils.
Conservative Suffolk County Council leader Mark Bee said a rush for a new structure could completely “paralyse” all the good work the counties were already doing together.
“We are trying to drive down the savings we are having to make. I, for one, would not want to have to go through the whole issue of a reorganisation at this point because we don’t have the time or money to invest in it when we are trying to go through the savings programme. The way I would see this is we have got to build good working relationships across boundaries - county and party boundaries to drive out these savings. “The danger is we change the government first and that is all we do and all we talk about.”
In Norfolk, county council leader George Nobbs said he was heartened that Ed, as a Norwich boy, had clearly identified there is a wider identity of East Anglia, of which Norfolk and Suffolk is the core.
“I am confident that Labour is taking our time over this and is listening to people on the ground. There is no need to rush this matter. It is essential that if we are to have any sort of parity with the rest of the UK there must be comparable scale authorities.”
“I am passionately in favour of this. I find there is an enthusiasm in other counties for this. I look forward to talking to leaders in Suffolk, and Essex and Cambridgeshire to talk about how we can move forward to get the best deal.”
But Ipswich MP Ben Gummer said it showed how completely “divorced from reality” Mr Balls was and the last thing anyone wanted was another tier of Government.
“I think we need fewer MPs and local authorities combining where they can. This is a potty idea.”
Labour’s last major attempt to devolve power in England was rejected by voters in the North-East in 2004.
Mr Balls said: “Clearly in East Anglia there is a debate about how this would happen and where you draw the boundaries. It certainly makes sense that it should be Norfolk and Suffolk, and we have to find a way within that to involve both tiers of Government in Norfolk and Suffolk.”
“We want to negotiate devolution in those key economic areas for the county region of Norfolk and Suffolk. People will debate whether that is the best area, and if we should go wider than that. There is a question about where Cambridgeshire fits, but that is something that rather than imposing a blueprint from the centre, we want to see what people come forward to us with.”
Mark Pendlington, chairman of New Anglia LEP said: “We welcome the call for wider devolution across the UK and, together with our business, education and local authority partners, are now looking at how we can play a greater role in future decision making in major infrastructure and skills projects, business growth and enterprise.
“We and our partners already have a proven track record in this area, securing two City Deals and a Lep-wide Growth Deal as well as developing a high-performing Enterprise Zone.
“With our local partners we are working on key schemes that will deliver thousands of jobs and houses as well as support for businesses and hundreds of new apprenticeships for Norfolk and Suffolk.”