Devolution-is it Progressing?

The devolution discussions are wending their way forward.  The government has stated that both Norfolk and Suffolk must be involved as in the LEP. A number of powers will be handed down only if an elected mayor controls a combined authority.

There is now a Norfolk and Suffolk Framework Document for Devolution, which gives a clearer list of ambitions.  It opens “Devolution offers an exciting opportunity for greater local decision-making and influence to power economic growth and productivity and unlock the potential of Norfolk and Suffolk.  The two counties have the scale, ambition and leadership to maximise the opportunities offered by additional freedoms and responsibilities. We also have the potential to grow our economy faster, with strengths in key sectors such as agri-tech, food & health, energy and the digital economy.”

The framework claims strengths as:

  • National hubs for key business sectors, eg financial industries, that need to be nurtured to become magnets for global inward investment
  • An all-energy coast at the centre of the world’s largest market for offshore wind
  • Globally-leading research in life sciences and agri-tech, and pioneering technical innovations in ICT research and development.
  • The UK’s busiest container port, in Felixstowe
  • A fast-growing creative digital sector, with Norwich recently recognised by Tech City UK
  • Market-leading food and drink producers
  • Our first-class cultural heritage attractions mean tourism is worth £4.6bn annually across Norfolk and Suffolk

However, while our employment figures are among the best in the country, our skills and productivity levels are below the national average.

I believe the need to work with Norfolk and a wider variety of political parties has helped clarify the way forward.  Negotiations continue.

Community Transport

This month a cabinet decision to tender for continuing community transport using a new structure was “called in”.  Community transport is services like Dial a Ride that provide “on demand” transport to people not served by scheduled buses or trains.  There have been a number of these services under various brands serving different communities and user groups.  Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers.

The proposal is that seven contracts would be let, one per district council so that people can easily know which they should phone to book a journey.

The current vehicles would be sold to the providers, a move that would allow a wider range of customers to be served.  When the county owns vehicles providers cannot use them to provide some desirable services.

In addition, they can then select vehicles to meet the need as they see it rather than having to use what the county provides.

The county hopes that this will allow competition for services such as some forms of home to school transport that will use the assets more intensively.

So why was this called in?  Well, among other issues, the intention was that, not only would the county no longer provide free vehicles saving some £570k but also it would reduce the subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years.  The revenue from the new freedom to provide services was supposed to compensate.

Scrutiny believed it more likely that, although the providers would survive, service to people without other transport options will be cut.

We referred the decision back but cabinet decided there would be no change, so much for democracy!

Devolution of powers to Suffolk

Suffolk is one of four two-tier areas invited by the government to bid to run functions currently delivered by the government.  In return, Suffolk would need to deliver agreed and improved outcomes without increasing costs.

The Suffolk Public Sector Leaders’ group, health, police and the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership have constructed the bid.  They believe that by having more control over what goes on in the county, we can deliver better outcomes for all of Suffolk’s communities.

Local knowledge and expertise of councillors will lead to more effective decision-making on issues that affect Suffolk’s communities.

Summarising a 14 page document is difficult but I believe the essentials are:

The bid proposes “a new Public Sector Board, a simple development and continuance of the current Suffolk Public Sector Leaders Group”.  This would organise the efforts of the current Local Enterprise Boards, County and District councils, Health, Police and perhaps the local employment and pensions service.

The leaders want:

  • More autonomy and certainty on funds such as New Homes Bonus;
  • Devolution of funding and decision making for investment in a modern transport system with a secure future;
  • Devolved multi-year settlements for health, care and safety;
  • The devolution of decision making over European Structural Funds;
  • Further Enterprise Zones focussed on agri-tech, food and drink and ICT and enhancement of the Growth Hub;
  • Devolved responsibility for the Apprenticeship Grant and successor schemes
  • Freedom to establish a new local employment service which can deliver Universal Credit;
  • First rights on government estates in Suffolk.

They promise

  • 70,000 new homes by 2031;
  • 5,000 new apprenticeships by 2020 and a further 2,500 in Suffolk by 2025
  • A radically different approach to local public service finances where greater local autonomy creates an environment that supports investment, is more sustainable and less reliant on central grants;
  • To increase Suffolk’s total annual Gross Value Add by a third to over £18 billion by 2025;
  • To provide more effective and joined up planning so we can use assets to invest in growth and transformation
  • They would design a new local employment service that helps people to progress into work and reduces dependency on benefits
  • To invest in infrastructure to stimulate growth such as delivering on the commitment to 100% coverage of superfast broadband by 2020

Councils will agree these proposals across the county and, if all goes well, they will have been submitted to government on 24th September.

If government accepts the bid, it will have an important impact on us all.  I believe it looks rather light on a believable democratically controlled structure capable of driving the improvements promised.  It also appears to confuse wishes, wants and intentions but it will develop and I hope succeed.