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East Midlands cities seek partners to break devo deadlock

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Nottingham City Council’s leader has told LGC how he is seeking to strengthen a “partnership of the willing” with fellow regional power Derby aimed at bypassing the government’s devolution impasse.

In his LGC interview, Nottingham leader Jon Collins (Lab) revealed membership of the Metro strategy between Nottingham and the unitary Derby City Council could be extended to other parts of the East Midlands, a region which is still reeling from last year’s collapse of the proposed North Midlands mayoral devolution deal.

Cllr Collins said Metro, for which a local consultation closed two weeks ago, currently focused on “relatively small things” including joint community protection and shared access to leisure facilities and libraries. However, work had begun to create a joint transport smart card and the cities were talking about more extensive sharing of services and economic development work.

jon collins

jon collins

Jon Collins

“There’s a lot that we have in common. It therefore makes sense for us to cooperate. We’ll build on areas of common interest and cooperate more,” said Cllr Collins.

“And we’ll see if others are interested when we have built a track record. Then we’ll say to some of our local government colleagues in and around Derby and Nottingham: do you want to contribute; do you want to be part of this?”

Asked about the advantages of Metro above the former North Midlands proposal, he said: “We aren’t running around to create a perfect geography or framework of local authorities but we’ll say we’ll work together and these are the things on which we are doing it. It will be a coalition of the willing.”

Gedling BC has already expressed to LGC an interest in participating. It is understood that a number of other districts are considering seeking to be involved.

Cllr Collins said the Metro strategy sought to avoid complications that thwarted the North Midlands plan. This fell apart amid wrangles about whether one-time component districts including Chesterfield BC could join the adjacent Sheffield City Region, councillors’ distrust of the mayoral model and scepticism from local Conservative MPs.

He insisted that “devolution only works when we’ve unitary authorities or where the government doesn’t try to fiddle the boundaries for electoral benefit”, adding: “Whenever you mix political motivation with an economic driver as a bi-product or an economic driver for devolution, the two don’t work.”

Cllr Collins said officers had discussed Metro with Department for Communities & Local Government officials although he was reluctant to get ministers involved. The point at which ministers had become involved in the North Midlands plan “was the point that it all fell apart”, he said, adding: “That’s an experience that I’m not overly keen on revisiting.”

The two councils weren’t embarking on Metro “to tick some government boxes or as primarily a way of accessing government funding or additional council powers”.

“The government’s focus is very much elsewhere,” said Cllr Collins. “I don’t see any evidence of an appetite on behalf of ministers for proper devolution. Politically people are weary of taking a playing to a government agenda.”

However he did say he would be keen to listen if “at some later date the government sees some benefit in the value of what we are doing” and proposed additional powers and investment.

In contrast to the leaders of some other larger councils who have complained that district councils have stood in the way of progress, Cllr Collins said: “I don’t have a problem with one council one vote.” The partnership could only be taken forward on the basis of “trust and collaboration”, he said.

Gedling leader John Clarke (Lab) told LGC: “From Gedling’s point of view, we’d be very interested in a link up. I’m hopeful that something comes from it.”

Derby, with its manufacturing industries, and Nottingham, with more of a focus on research and technology, are believed by the two city councils to be complimentary partners on an international economic stage, and could jointly exhibit at the Mipim trade fairs.

Speaking at the launch of Metro in April, Derby’s leader Ranjit Banwait (Lab) said: “While our plan still has a focus on joint actions by the two city councils, we are talking to our partners, neighbouring authorities and businesses to put in place plans to broaden our engagement in manageable steps as the Metro evolves.”

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