Questions and answers from Norfolk County Council

County Hall, Norwich.

County Hall, Norwich. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

1) Norfolk County Council, together with other councils in Norfolk, brought in consultants to consider the devolution question. When was that decision taken? Who made the decision and in what forum? What was the wording agreed for the remit of those consultants? How much was paid to those consultants?

The consultant used was the New Local Government Network. We asked them to carry out some research and analysis on the devolution agenda and potential opportunities to inform a potential Norfolk response/bid.

The decision to engage the consultant was taken by the chief executives of the eight councils at a meeting in March 2015. This followed on from a meeting of the leaders of the eight councils in December at which they tasked chief executives with developing information about the potential opportunities for devolution for them to consider. The total cost was £2,000 per council.

2) When was the first contact between the council and the government over the issue of devolution? Was it an email/letter/telephone call? And at that time, what was the belief of the council in terms of the timescale the devolution agenda was operating to?

Conversations between officers began shortly after the post-election spending review which announced the Northern Powerhouse and asked other authorities to send proposals by September 4. However, it was thought that this only applied to metropolitan authorities – this was certainly the view of those with government connections.

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3) When did it become clear to the council that an expression of interest had to be lodged by September 4? Council leader George Nobbs has said “late in the day there seemed to be a change”, how did the council learn of that change? Is there frustration that this process is being rushed? Is it true that councils have been told they must get bids in so there can be an announcement at the Conservative Party conference?

Up until 29 July we thought we had plenty of time and 4 September was just for Northern power house. However, shortly after that, based on various ministerial statements and conversations with civil servants it became clear, that September 4 was important in relation to the autumn statement so to secure first mover advantage we needed to get something in for September 4.

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No we are not frustrated, although it is difficult to work at pace when so many different authorities are involved.

In terms of the link with the Conservative party conference – there was some suggestion in informal conversations that important dates in the process would include the spending review in November and the Conservative Party conference in October. It is now quite clear that work on devolution will go on well beyond the conservative party conference.

4) When was the first discussion with Suffolk about a joint bid and/or a combined authority? Who was involved in those discussions? Are there any minutes?

The councils from both counties submitted their proposals on September 4. These proposals made it clear that while each had been worked up on an individual county-wide basis, both counties would be happy to work with others on taking on devolved control over key services that have a regional impact. This approach was supported by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, which covers both counties.

Officials from the DCLG and Cities and Local Growth Unit attended a meeting of leaders and officers on September 9 to provide feedback on the Norfolk and Suffolk devolution submissions. The clear message from central government was that a Norfolk and Suffolk combined authority deal has a much greater chance of success than a bid from a single county.

5). What is happening now with regards the devolution deal? What conversations has the county council had with the government? What further talks need to take place if it is going to happen? Will they be made public?

This a process involving all of the councils in Norfolk and Suffolk, not simply the county council. The officer lead in Norfolk, for instance, is the chief executive of West Norfolk Council. There will be many meetings and discussions amongst council officers and between officers and Whitehall official over coming months.

6) Has Norfolk County Council approached Cambridgeshire over the possibility of it becoming part of an alternative bid? If so, what was the response?

No, the County Council has not approached Cambridgeshire over the possibility of it becoming part of an alternative bid. The leader of Norfolk County Council visited the Cambridgeshire leader as a courtesy as they had not previously met. Mr Nobbs understood that Cambridgeshire was not interested in a bid and was exploring other options. He wanted to meet face to face to ensure that the Cambridgeshire leader did not feel pressured into joining a bid – even if there was speculation about this. This visit was welcomed.

The government is encouraging us to pursue a joint bid with Norfolk and Suffolk Councils. However the door will remain future to co-operation with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

7) Some have described the Norfolk/Suffolk deal as being ‘dead in the water’. Does the county council agree? If not, explain why not.

Absolutely not, and it is disappointing to hear speculation about this.

8) The recent meeting to discuss the joint bid was a tense one, which suggested cross-border working will be difficult. How big a challenge is it to get everybody on board?

There are remarkably few cross-border tensions.

9) If the devolution deal goes through, who would the county council expect to be on the executive board of a combined Norfolk/Suffolk authority? How difficult would it be to form that board given Norfolk County Council has a committee model and Suffolk County Council a cabinet model of governance?

Both Suffolk County Council and Norfolk County Council would expect to play a role in any combined authority, as would the cities and districts of East Anglia. Governance models of individual councils would not be an issue as it would be a separate entity.

10) How much has all this cost so far? And, if it does go ahead, can you reassure taxpayers it will not cost them more money? The cost has largely been officer time. We have no intention of creating new bureaucracies.

11) In all of this, has anybody thought perhaps we should scrap the county councils and go to one-tier government? Why is unitary such a toxic word? Won’t the preservation of two tiers merely result in extra costs as officials and councillors travel between two areas?

The last two previous attempts to reform local government were extremely divisive, and so there is little appetite to go down the unitary model. It is an expensive upheaval and there are better ways to get a better deal for local residents.

12) If the government says a combined authority is acceptable, but only with an elected mayor, would the proposal still be pursued or is that a deal-breaker?

The legislation, which has yet to finish its journey through the house makes no specific demand for a mayor outside of the metropolitan areas, so this issue will probably never arise.

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