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Leaders discuss 'combined authority' across four counties

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Leaders in the East Midlands have started talks on developing a strategic body across four counties which would operate like a combined authority and pave the way for a devolution deal.

Preliminary discussions involving Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire CCs have focused on a way to “counter-balance” the power of the West Midlands CA, with an acceptance this may lead to some reorganisation of local government structures in the region.

Leicestershire leader Nick Rushton (Con) told LGC the government “could not ignore” a combined authority proposal which also included the three counties and Derby, Leicester and Nottingham city councils, all unitaries.

He said: “We are in the Midlands Engine, we are in Midlands Connect, we need to have something big in the east to counteract Andy Street and Birmingham in the west - we haven’t got that massive body of power in the east.

“We need something big and strategic that is recognised by the government and could attract substantial devolution. We have all promised officer time to look at something between now and the end of the summer.”

Cllr Rushton added recent developments in Northamptonshire and the government’s backing for new unitary councils in Buckinghamshire and Dorset reflect a “general drift” to “restructuring upwards”.

He said financial pressures are shaping discussions across the East Midlands, adding a single county-wide unitary covering Leicestershire and its districts would make “substantial” savings.

However, Cllr Rushton admitted something would have to be done to address a potential “democratic deficit”.

He also said the process of developing the new body would be difficult without “strategic direction” from the government.

Derbyshire leader Barry Lewis (Con) said proposals for developing a strategic body were likely to include reorganisation “in some areas” and it would be a “bonus” if the body had a similar arrangement with the government to that of a combined authority.

In 2016, deals negotiated with the government for a Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal faltered over the requirement to adopt an elected mayor.

East Lindsey DC leader Craig Leyland (Con) said Lincolnshire districts remain “very keen” to explore devolution, particularly because of a perceived softening by the government of the mayoral requirement.

He added: “Because of the size of the county, the unitary solution wouldn’t be a one unitary solution - probably two or three. If there was a requirement from government to go to a unitary solution then we would have to do it.”

In 2015, the two counties, two cities and seven districts in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were at the forefront of the push for a devolution deal but negotiations stalled over the requirement to adopt an elected mayor.

A report published in November last year found closer working between Derby and Nottingham and their neighbouring districts could generate an additional £11bn for the economy by 2030.

However, the leaders of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire hit out at what they claim was a “secret and underhand” plan by their city council neighbours to expand their boundaries and create a “metro-fantasy land”.

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