Shake-up, or shake-down?

On Thursday 31 March, I went to an event hosted by the Cambridge Network to discuss the ‘East Anglian Devolution Agreement’. It was a lively discussion, with the audience raising questions on how will it impact the region – is it a good for people, good for business?

The East Anglia Devolution Agreement is something that had slipped under most of our radars (well mine at least!). The big idea is that Local Authorities (Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, Norfolk and Suffolk in our case) will be bundled together under a Mayor/Governor (think Boris). The proposal of adding this new tier comes with the financial carrots of an extra £175m grant over the next 5 years for additional housing, £30m/yr for 30 years for an infrastructure fund to support economic growth – with the ‘Mayor’ having the power to raise a business rate supplement; devolved control over existing Adult Skills budgets on a multi-year basis of around £50m for 5 years. The biggest carrot being that the single pot of funds can be used by this combined Authority to leverage borrowing.

Devolution sounds good – we will be in charge of our regional destiny! The general consensus in the room was that devolution is a good idea, but the offer on the table right now could be a lot better, and are Peterborough, Suffolk and Norfolk a good fit for Cambridgeshire – is that too big a region – or what about Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as alternatives. The big plusses are we can keep some of our taxes (not to be sneezed at in central Cambridge for sure), have a say on business rates, and we can make strategic decisions on unemployment, health, education that are good for our region. But I couldn’t help but wonder, what will happen to areas of the country that rely on a central government, those counties that are economic deserts, only lively in the school holidays as the second-homers arrive, or ravaged by lost industry.

I am reminded by a line from ‘The man who fell to Earth’, if you are given a gift horse, open its mouth wide and look inside.