Leaders could face town hall backlash over Chancellor’s Eastern powerhouse announcement

PUBLISHED: 09:03 16 March 2016 | UPDATED: 09:37 16 March 2016

The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside No 11 Downing Street, London. Pic: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside No 11 Downing Street, London. Pic: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Chancellor George Osborne is today expected to trumpet that the region is on the brink of a devolution deal to create an Eastern Powerhouse - but there could yet be a town hall backlash from councillors unhappy an elected mayor is a key part of the bargain.

The questions the government wouldn’t answer

The EDP put these questions about what happens next to the government:

• What is the democratic process now a deal is on the table? Will all the councils get to vote on whether to accept the deal?

• What would happen if at least one council in the area covered by the deal votes against it at that point?

• Does there need to be a majority of councils voting in favour of it if the deal is to go through? Please explain the process.

• Does the government have the power to force any dissenting council to be part of the deal if they vote against it?

• Or if the government does not have that power, would deal go ahead with those councils not being a part of it?

• What happens if there is a future political change at one of the councils which does agree to the deal and they subsequently want to come out of it? What mechanism exists for that eventuality?

• At what point will the public be party to the terms of the deal?

• Was any consideration given to whether the public should have had a say on this issue - such as through a referendum? The government believed the public should have a say on high council tax increases, so why not on something which could be a seismic shift in local democracy?

• Local councillors feel they have been excluded from the process. Are they right to feel aggrieved?

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said it was “premature” to answer.

They said only: “The government welcomes any proposals and discussions which deliver better local services, greater value for money and stronger local leadership.

“This is a bottom-up process and we will continue to have discussions with areas.”

A number of grassroots politicians from across the region and the political divide have said they have not yet been fully consulted, with many raising concerns about the prospect of an elected mayor - believed to be at the heart of the proposal.

Mr Osborne is expected to use his budget today to make a devolution announcement for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, excluding Cambridge city, which said it did not want to sign up for the current proposals - a deal which has still not been made public.

A deal has been discussed behind closed doors and, although council leaders and MPs, one of whom hailed the “bold devolution deal” know the details, they have been sworn to secrecy ahead of today’s budget announcement.

But, the deal still needs to be taken back to each council to be voted on - and councillors frustrated at their lack of involvement in a process carried out in private meetings may not give it an easy ride.

And the government has refused to state whether, if councils vote against accepting the deal, it would force a deal upon them against their wishes.

One councillor, who did not want to be named, said there had been a great deal of disquiet and hinted a rebellion was brewing.

They said: “We were elected last May and this wasn’t on the agenda. Our leaders are not running our councils. They are in London twice a week.

“The story has been sold that we have to be at the table. It is a ‘forced marriage’. We have been told it has got to happen.”

Bernard Williamson, a Labour borough councillor in Great Yarmouth said he wished he knew the details of the plan.

He said: “No-one has seen the actual deal. We have not seen the governance structure. My concern is we do not know the details about how it will work for local councils and local people.

“I am personally not in favour of elected mayors, but that is part of the deal. We may have someone flown in from elsewhere to take the role. How much executive power will they have?”

Mr Williamson said he did not feel local councillors were being asked for their view, “It is not that type of consultation, it is being driven by the centre from the top.

Alan Mallett, Conservative councillor for Coltishall on Broadland District Council, said his leader Andrew Proctor had kept him in the loop about the meetings he had attended.

But, on an elected mayor, he said: “I think it is a damn silly idea. I don’t see what it is going to mean to anybody.”

Virginia Gay, Liberal Democrat North Norfolk District councillor for North Walsham said she was not sure what powers would be devolved, or how it would affect north Norfolk.

She added: “I need to think about an elected mayor long and hard as there have been mixed reports from other areas.”

Keith Gilbert, Breckland councillor for 20 years and Watton town councillor for 30 years, said he wanted to see powers devolved, but said an elected mayor was a ‘political gimmick’.

He said: “What’s the point of having all the other councillors if we have an elected mayor? I wonder if it is a way of reducing the importance of local councillors – that could be a consequence.”
And the Green group at County Hall criticised the “rushed, secretive plans”. Leader Richard Bearman said: “These plans walk all over local people and take power away from districts and boroughs.”

See live budget reaction on our homepage from 12.30pm today.

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