“We will hand power from the centre to cities to give you greater control over your local transport, housing, skills and healthcare… [But] with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
Those were the words of George Osborne after the 2015 general election. As chancellor, Mr Osborne was undoubtedly the driving force behind the devolution agenda but he also drove a hard bargain with areas wanting to secure a deal.
The payoff for increased local control and powers was their adoption of the controversial elected mayor model.
While Greater Manchester followed by the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley and West of England all took the plunge, other areas baulked.
In the autumn of 2016, deals negotiated with the government for Greater Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and the North East all faltered over the requirement to adopt an elected mayor.
Over the last 12 months six mayors have been championing their regions, lobbying ministers and winning extra funding. One example of that came in the autumn Budget when the six combined authority areas were allocated a combined £840m from the transforming cities fund, half of the total fund. All of the areas without elected mayors are having to bid for a share of the remainder of the fund.
To secure a devolution deal every council involved had to approve the agreement.
King’s Lynn & West Norfolk BC was the first to reject the deal for Norfolk and Suffolk after backbenchers were told by local MP Sir Henry Bellingham the region would be offered a “similar deal” without a directly elected mayor. Nothing has materialised since.
Brian Long (Con), leader of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, told LGC his council “has not achieved its best potential” as a result of the absence of a devolution deal.
As his council sits on the border of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA boundary, Cllr Long said he takes a “keen interest” in mayor James Palmer’s (Con) activities.
Although translating vision and aspiration into action are “two different things”, Cllr Long added: “When that delivery starts to happen I think it will probably hit home with those who voted against the devolution deal for Norfolk and Suffolk because they will see things going on over the border in Cambridgeshire and wish we could draw down some of those funds and do things in our part of the world.”
Colin Noble (Con), leader of Suffolk CC, said: “It’s a straight up fact the government did put money into those areas that took devolution deals. In straight cash terms you can say we haven’t got as much money as those areas.”
However, he said the process was not a waste of time as all councils are now taking a much “longer term view on all of the infrastructure projects in Suffolk” while the county council has developed closer links with health partners.
“When you go through a process like that it’s really important you build on the lessons and the learning curve you get from it. There were still an immense number of things that came from that that we’re now working on to implement,” said Cllr Noble.
In the North East, backbenchers on Gateshead Council were fundamental to causing the region’s deal to collapse.
Martin Gannon (Lab), who became Gateshead’s leader on the back of the fallout of the deal’s demise, told LGC it “remains to be seen” if areas like his would get left behind by those with devolution deals.
“We will keep an eye on what happens in other areas but I don’t think the settlements [so far] have been excessively generous to other areas [with devolution deals],” he said.