To note whether the Chairman proposes to accept any item as urgent business pursuant to Section 100(B)(4)(b) of the Local Government Act 1972.
Norfolk County Council (NCC) had been invited to attend Overview & Scrutiny Commission to talk about decisions made and the way forward with Devolution within Norfolk and how it may affect services to residents across the county.
The Leader of NCC, Councillor Andrew Proctor made a short statement. The Government had set itself a mission that by 2030, every part of England that wanted a Devolution deal would have one with powers at or approaching the highest level of Devolution with a simplified long term funding settlement. The 2022 Levelling Up White Paper made clear the case for Devolution as the engine room for improved productivity and reduced regional disparities. He stated that Devolution would be critical to deliver the Governments twelve headline Levelling Up missions strengthening local leadership to act more flexibly and innovatively to respond to local need, whether on transport, skills, or regeneration.
In the White Paper, the Government published for the first time a devolution framework, which set out a clear menu of options for places in England that wished to unlock the benefits of devolution. This framework placed a strong emphasis on the importance of high profile, directly elected local leadership, strong local governance, and joint working across sensible and coherent economic geographies. The most comprehensive package was a Level 3 deal, for areas with a single institution over a sensible geography, with the strongest and most accountable leadership, such as a single county or unitary council with a directly elected leader, in this case this would be the leader of NCC. NCC wanted Devolution and it was excited for the future for residents.
The beginning of this transition started in Summer 2021 when NCC put in an expression of interest with central Government and had, over that time built up trust with ministers and officials with a clear desire of Government wanting to work with Norfolk and deliver Devolution. Norfolk remained one of nine Local Authorities progressing Devolution Deals. Through this deal there would be an opportunity to unlock significant long-term funding, gain greater freedom to decide how best to meet local needs and create new opportunities for the people who lived and worked in Norfolk. This would be a catalyst of change to build on strengths, address challenges, deliver infrastructure and grow the economy.
NCC would create a fully devolved funding programme covering all budgets for devolved functions (“Norfolk Investment Fund”), accountable to NCCNCC would use the Norfolk Investment Fund to deliver a programme of transformational long-term investment. The Government had agreed to allocate £20 million per annum for 30 years. It would provide an opportunity to unlock housing and employment sites with an injection of £12.9 million capital funding. It would strengthen the local business voice to inform local decision making and strategic economic planning through the future integration of the new Anglia Enterprise Partnership. This would be a start for Norfolk to unlock future opportunities.
Devolution was not about taking power away from districts, it would be an opportunity for all to work together for the better of the whole County. All would benefit from joint working and it would break down barriers ensuring that there would be genuine partnership working, nationally and locally. This would be an opportunity for all stakeholders and partners to shape the priorities of planning, implementation and ultimately delivery.
Councillor Brame said that the deal stated that the Sovereignty of Parish, Borough and Districts would be upheld, no loss of statutory powers would be experienced, and that NCC would work in partnership to ensure that this would be the case.
Councillor Brame also stated that as far as he knew, NCC had agreed in principle the next step, the public consultation.. He wanted to know who would be producing the consultation document and who had input, and if the outcome of the consultation was no to this deal, what would be the next step.
Tom McCabe, the Head of Paid Service and Executive Director of Community & Environmental Services (NCC) advised that NCC would arrange the consultation with colleagues from National Government, it was not a referendum, but a consultation and the results would be available for all to see, a decision would not be made by NCC, but by Central Government as how to proceed.
Councillor Proctor confirmed that there would be no loss of local power and that NCC would work in partnership with Parishes, Boroughs and Districts to ensure that this did not happen.
With regard to the response of the consultation and the findings, Mr McCabe stated that Norfolk needed to be ambitious with change and analyse what views and points had been raised from the consultation to ascertain if this could change and shape the deal going forward.
Councillor Jermy asked why it was felt that having a directly elected leader would be of benefit in this scenario. He also asked how NCC would encourage the public to be involved in the consultation to make their voice heard. Mr McCabe felt that devolution would be a way of pushing power to local areas and felt that this would engage local residents to have much more of a say and provide local influence and decide locally what was important in Norfolk. Councillor Proctor said that having a directly elected leader with a link to Central Government would be a way forward, it had to be assessed as to whether the change would be worth it, but having the direct link was a positive way ahead for future negotiation.
Councillor Birt had noticed that the presentation stated that Norfolk wanted devolution and asked how NCC was aware of this without the evidence to prove it. He also asked how it could be demonstrated that devolution would be of benefit for all in Norfolk, and how much it would cost to take on the extra responsibilities that this required. From the presentation and responses thus far, it was understood that the public, through the consultation, were not able to reject the deal and if this was the case, he wanted to know if this was a diktat from those that had already decided what would happen.
Councillor Proctor advised that views had been gained from people involved in the consultation so far, including Leaders from various Councils which, he assumed, represented the views of various Councils - that Devolution was the way forward but it was something that would be tested through the consultation. He felt that the benefits would accrue over time, but no-one could say at this point what those benefits would be, however it enabled more local input on what was needed to be done across the county and gave Norfolk the power of prioritising those needs across the whole of Norfolk.
Councillor Proctor said he felt it was far from a diktat, the consultation would be asking the public for their opinions on what was important for residents, which would shape the future for Norfolk.
The Chairman asked how many people had been involved in the discussions over the last 18 months and if NCC felt that this represented the views across Norfolk. In response, Councillor Proctor stated that from the discussions that had been had with various Leaders of Districts, Boroughs, and City Councillors no-one had said that they disagreed with Devolution and when the proposals had been taken to the existing Norfolk Public Sector Leaders Board no-one had said that this was not wanted, so the evidence had been clear.
Councillor Atterwill asked about the strength of the governance arrangement and how it would provide stable governance for the people of Norfolk. He had noticed that the presentation said that the directly elected leader would be a stronger voice for Norfolk and asked why NCC felt that this was so. Councillor Proctor explained that whoever got elected for this role had to be the right person, it would be a huge responsibility to take this forward and not for the feint hearted. The directly elected leader would need to choose the cabinet carefully and had the opportunity and power to do so. There was a huge amount of work still to be done to get this right for the future.
Councillor Turner asked if devolution would make the addressing of social care and the care of the elderly any better and suggested questions like this should form part of the consultation. The Executive Director of Strategy and Transformation, Paul Cracknell explained that NCC would continue to be responsible for social care across Norfolk. This topic did not appear in the consultation but that the directly elected leader and formed cabinet would decide on the topics important to Norfolk and the priority and investment required to achieve the best it possibly could for Norfolk residents and its priorities.
The Chairman said that it was public knowledge that a pre-action protocol letter had been sent by this and three other Councils to challenge the devolution process. He raised concerns about how it was that the relationship between district and county had deteriorated so much that legal letters were being sent, about the process that NCC had followed thus far and also asked how many Members of Parliament were currently speaking in support of the deal as it stood.
The Chairman also asked for confirmation on how much the directly elected leader would be paid. Would the Leader be allowed to appoint a deputy or any support staff and would there be a separate budget to support that office or would it be included within NCC’s current budget and if so, what the current cost estimates were around that.
The Chairman was aware that there had been long and in-depth negotiations in the run up to ratifying the deal but it had been a small, select few that had been involved in the negotiations and the text of the deal was not made public until the day it was signed. He asked if NCC could share what they felt the top three wins were for Norfolk and how NCC felt that this deal, at this point excelled against others around the Country.
Councillor Proctor advised that he had received a letter of confirmation signed by eight out of nine Conservative MPs in support of going for the highest level of Devolution with ambition. Not one MP had said not to proceed. The pre-action protocol letter was still going through legal proceedings, and he was not obliged at this stage to comment. With regard to the costs involved, the salary would be decided by an independent remuneration panel, the cost of the team supporting this would be picked up by the NCC budget and in addition, as part of the deal there would be capacity funding to support this.
Mr Cracknell referred to the question in respect of the three wins. He explained that discussions had been held around the constraints of the White Paper on what was important to Norfolk. The main benefits was new money, flexibility over the money that was currently available and the ability to connect functions that were historically designed and commissioned nationally, and to be able to have power of that locally to decide what would be best for Norfolk.
Councillor Hewett asked if this was a deal in principle or a done deal and what message NCC would provide for the residents of Norfolk about what they could do to stop this. Mr Cracknell said NCC would be breaking down the deal into different components and asking residents what they thought them. Also, it would be looking to different forums and partners for their comments and all would be considered. He explained that the reason it was a deal in principle was that firstly Government would need to pass legislation, it would then be NCC Full Council to consider and agree that on the basis of what had been heard, its Governance model would have to be changed and if that did not happen the deal would not go ahead.
Councillor Hambidge asked what benefits smaller villages and communities would see from Devolution. Mr McCabe explained that if Norfolk were able to draw on this additional funding through Devolution, it would give further opportunities to draw in more funding and gain its fair share of Government money.
Mr Cracknell explained that without the deal, and if NCC had stopped the process, Norfolk would be no further ahead and the implications would be that other counties would be able to go forward with the benefits and Norfolk would be left behind.
Councillor Jermy suggested that under the Rules and Regulations of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, item 10 gave powers to make reports or recommendations to Full Council or Cabinet on matters which affected the authority’s area or the inhabitants of the area and felt that this was the time to do so. With this in mind, Councillor Jermy suggested that after the presentation, , the following recommendation be made to Cabinet:
The Commission believed that the benefits of Devolution for Breckland residents were unclear and there were concerns about the proposal, the Overview and Scrutiny Commission request that Cabinet undertake a review of the benefits and attempt to make clear to Full Council what those benefits are after the consultation period. Furthermore, OSC requests that Cabinet commits to Full Council being permitted a vote as to whether there would be support for the proposals.
Councillor Birt seconded the above proposal.
The Deputy Chief Executive and Monitoring officer, Rob Walker explained that it had always been the intention to bring forward a draft response, for consideration by Members, on how Breckland Council would respond as an authority to the consultation period that had been described.
A vote was then taken which was not carried – 3 votes in favour, 4 votes against +3 abstentions.