Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA mayor James Palmer (Con) said he “wouldn’t rule out” a bid to expand his remit to cover Norfolk and Suffolk but stressed it would need local leaders in those two counties to push it through.
In a wide-ranging interview with LGC Mr Palmer also spoke about “ruffling feathers” in both his area and in Westminster and being “bullish” about Brexit.
Norfolk and Suffolk were originally included in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s devolution deal only for it to break down over a disagreement about adopting the mayoral model.
At the time Mr Palmer was leader of East Cambridgeshire DC. He said: “When we were in negotiations [over the original plan] I was in favour of the wider deal but that fell apart because those areas, particularly Norfolk, didn’t want to be in the combined authority area.
“The East of England is an extraordinarily successful and powerful area and my view it is potentially missing out on funding to the north and the Midlands which it should get.
“I’m very satisfied with the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA area but I wouldn’t rule out something in the future, but that’s not going to come from me – that’s got to come from the people of East Anglia and the political representatives in the area. That’s not my decision and it never will be but I do think the east has missed out for many years, generations, and at the moment that’s a detriment to the people of the East of England.”
LGC reported in April how council leaders in Norfolk and Suffolk expressed some regret about not being involved as they had recognised more investment had gone to Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.
This also comes after Tees Valley CA mayor Ben Houchen (Con) expressed a desire in April to expand into North Yorkshire.
In June, LGC reported how a power struggle between Mr Palmer and local leaders had led to ministers threatening to withhold up to £400m funding from Cambridge’s city deal.
Mr Palmer said he had since settled differences with local leaders about the future delivery of transport projects but dismissed suggestions he was seeking to take control of the deal which is overseen by the Greater Cambridge Partnership.
“I need to make sure policies are joined up and we don’t go wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on schemes that are not joined up and thought through,” he said. “Power grab is an over-used and lazy term for trying to sort out problems.”
Mr Palmer said he is “quite happy with the relationship I have with leaders” locally, while he said he had found it “interesting” working with ministers and central government.
Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s devolution deal requires the region to deliver about 100,000 extra homes in the next 15 years, improve infrastructure, and increase the region’s economic output “by nearly 100% over the next 25 years”.
Mr Palmer said it was his “job to disrupt and question the system” to ensure those targets can be met as he said carrying on in the same way as the previous “30 or 40 years… will simply not deliver what we need”. He added: “It is absolutely my job to be disruptive and to ruffle a few feathers whether they be at home or in Westminster.”
Despite being set an ambitious target to double the region’s economic output, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, Mr Palmer said he was “massively confident” about the future.
“I think the free trade deal we will end up with, and I am still confident there will be a deal, will mean our economy can continue to thrive with trade through Europe as well [as the rest of the world].
“I’m quite bullish about the prospects for our local economy.”
While many feel like the government’s devolution drive has largely dried up due to Brexit, Mr Palmer disagreed. “Just because it’s not on the front page of the paper every day of the week it doesn’t mean the government aren’t supporting devolved mayors,” he said.
Mr Palmer said the government “sits alongside the mayors and listens to what they have to say”, although he said said he wanted to see more powers devolved generally.
“You would expect me to say I am a huge supporter of devolution but I would expect it to be very beneficial for the government long-term,” he said.