“An alliance of smaller parties on Cambridgeshire County Council looks set to throw another spanner in the works of George Osborne’s devolution plan for East Anglia.
The chancellor used today’s Budget speech to confirm the widely speculated ‘Eastern Powerhouse’, with a directly elected mayor overseeing almost £1 billion of investment across Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
But the News can reveal that county councillors are set to become the third major player in the county to reject the Government’s devolution offer.
No party has overall control at Shire Hall, with Tory council leader Cllr Steve Count having only agreed to continue further discussions with Whitehall, after consultation with other group leaders.
And the leaders of Labour, the Lib Dems and UKIP have all announced they are set to reject the plans, and have demanded a special meeting of full council to discuss the proposals early in April.
And Labour leader Cllr Ashley Walsh said independent group leader Cllr John Hipkin was also minded to reject the ‘Eastern powerhouse’ deal – potentially giving an overall majority of councillors voting against the proposals.
It is also thought a similar alliance of opposition is being coordinated by the smaller parties on Peterborough City Council, while there were reports this morning of a ‘town hall backlash’ cross Norfolk and Suffolk over the plans, which would come with a directly elected mayor.
“‘George Osborne has managed to unite virtually everybody against these ridiculous devolution proposals,” said Cllr Walsh.
“The business community from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough local enterprise partnership to the chambers of commerce do not support the plans. The public are rightly sceptical of an expensive mayor with yet another layer of local government.
“The biggest problem in Cambridgeshire is how to deal with our county’s massive inequality. Cambridge needs to be allowed to grow to make the city affordable once again but the success of the south of the county needs to be shared equally with the impoverished north of the county.
“But the devolution proposals give us no guarantee that any of the small budget would be directed to making the county equal by giving it the housing, skills and infrastructure investment it actually needs. For the financial and democratic cost of a barmy system of a mayor and combined authority, the scraps currently being offered are just not worth it.
“These are shoddy proposals drawn up on the back of a fag packet. They have been rushed through in the space of about a month simply because George Osborne wanted something nice to announce in his sixth austerity budget.
“The government should go back to the drawing board and spend an appropriate amount of time building up support for a sensible and costed devolution package that will actually support the economic development of Greater Cambridge and East Anglia more generally. So far, they have totally failed.”
Lib Dem leader Cllr Nethsingha was similarly outspoken, telling the News: “The Liberal Democrat group on the council has made its opposition to the proposals for a new layer of government with an elected mayor very clear. We do not believe that these proposals have anything to offer Cambridgeshire.
“The amount of money being offered for infrastructure is tiny in comparison with that available through the City Deal.
“The governance proposals are disastrous and would lead to the people of Cambridgeshire having no control over the transport and planning decisions in their local area.
“We have seen from the public interest there has been in many of the City Deal proposals that the public want to be involved in decision making. This mayoral proposal would shut people out, and we cannot support that.”
UKIP group leader Cllr Paul Bullen agreed it was right that Cllr Count had agreed to bring these discussions in front of councillors.
But he added: “On the face of it at the moment myself and my group are not supportive of the devolution deal, because we don’t think it does anything for Cambridgeshire.
“But more importantly, from a UKIP point of view, we believe it’s more centralisation it actually puts not just one but two further layers of bureaucracy in.
“You’d have all the associated costs of running this cabinet, and then you’d have a directly elected mayor above that.
“It’s not localism – it’s centralisation as far as I’m concerned.”
On the county council currently there are 30 Conservative councillors and a total of 38 from other parties – 14 Lib Dems, 12 from UKIP, eight Labour and four independents.
Cambridge City Council and the business-led Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough local enterprise partnership have also rejected the deal.”