Devolution could be a recipe for success in East's pandemic recovery

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaking to the media outside the Central Library in Mancheste

Could a figure like Andy Burnham help East Anglia from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic? - Credit: PA

Researchers from a major think tank believe devolution could help East Anglia recover from the impact of the pandemic – but the region would need to get the “ingredients right” in any deal.

IPPR North is a think tank studying how political devolution could work in areas across the UK – researching how the concept would work in areas from Scotland to Cornwall. 

Marcus Johns leads the research on regional economics, local economic development and transportation. 

He said: “I can’t see there being anywhere in England that wouldn’t, in some respect, benefit from devolution. 

“It’s probably more a case of what the different pieces of the jigsaw look like in that there might be certain combinations of areas that don’t work. 

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“And those areas could look different, which is what we saw with the East Anglia deal that was withdrawn in 2017. 

“Cambridge and Peterborough has since gone forward to find its own deal. And that Norfolk and Suffolk didn’t go forward as part of the deal, isn’t that Norfolk and Suffolk couldn’t do it. It was just that the pieces of the jigsaw maybe didn’t work at the time.  

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“I think it can be made work to work across the entire country, it would just be about getting the different ingredients right.”  

While most of the early devolution deals were based around cities, Mr Johns said there has been a rise in more rural areas being granted devolution. 

Among the more rural areas to get devolution already are Northumberland, as part of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, and much of north-east Somerset is part of the West of England Combined Authority. 

Two more rural areas, North Yorkshire and Cumbria, are expecting to get devolution potentially within a year. 

But Mr Johns said that much of what the government intended for the future of the devolution would not become clear until it published a long-awaited white paper on the subject. 

Until now, each devolution deal has been bespoke – making it difficult to talk concretely about what devolution could mean for areas like East Anglia. 

Some deals, for example the Greater Manchester deal, are seen as having more power than others, like the Cambridge and Peterborough devolution deal. 

But most of the current deals share certain similarities. 

One of these similarities is the need for an elected mayor – an issue which in part scuppered the previous attempt at devolving power to Norfolk and Suffolk. 

Only the current Cornish devolution deal does not involve a mayor. 

Mr Johns said: “Obviously Cornwall is a rural authority and received a slightly different type of devolution. They didn’t have the creation of a combined authority, instead the existing political structure – Cornwall Council – was given more power.” 

But he said this is a path other places are unlikely to follow as he believes the government preferring a mayoral model going forward with the decision being down to Cornwall’s “unique circumstances” and the county having a very particular set of problems to solve. 

Despite an elected mayor being a past sticking point in East Anglia, Mr Johns said the role had benefits beyond its formal powers. 

“There’s also the soft power that mayors have that can’t be overlooked,” he said. “The ability to convene over a large area, or speak directly to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) or the Treasury. 

“I think that is often an overlooked element of what the mayor’s do, but the ability to have a voice has borne fruit in those areas.”

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