Last week, George Osborne was in Manchester. He was there to talk about his “Northern Powerhouse” idea. About devolution of central government functions to a new super authority covering the Greater Manchester area. The new “Mayor of Manchester” will have control of the police, health and local authority services for the area. He (or she) will control budgets of several billion pounds.
Devolution, or localism, is the new watchword of this Government. Communities Secretary Greg Clarke was the Minister who developed the City Deals – indeed he came to Ipswich to sign our City Deal – and is clearly committed to further devolution of power.
With this background, it is fascinating that Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet are proposing, days before they’re replaced, to start a discussion about what devolution might look like here in Suffolk.
The report, which will be discussed by councillors next Tuesday, just 48 hours before some of those same councillors might not be in that Cabinet, proposes some truly radical ideas, not least fiscal autonomy, the demand that the Scottish National Party is making of the Government.
Yet the most obvious form of devolution, one of Ipswich’s biggest aspirations, isn’t on the table. A unitary authority for Ipswich is not simply some grandiose scheme to make Ipswich Borough Council feel better about itself. It is vital for the economy of Suffolk.
When the unitary authority argument was had last time, I was on the other side. Indeed I was vocally opposed to an Independent Ipswich, preferring the type of “Pathfinder” scheme that Suffolk now appears to want to introduce. Much more partnership working and real efficiencies stemming from having fewer officers, shared between authorities. At one point Suffolk had 8 local authority Chief Executives, all on between £75k and £250k. That was a ridiculous sum of public money to be spent on just 8 individuals. Now we have just 5, and the highest salary is much lower than that of the infamous Andrea Hill.
But Pathfinder died as Minister’s changed – David Miliband moved from DCLG to DEFRA and then the Foreign Office; Ruth Kelly, his replacement, moved to Transport; Hazel Blears, her replacement, walked out of Government in 2009.
Ruth Kelly killed off Pathfinder and instead Suffolk County Council started drawing up plans for a Unitary Suffolk, mostly as a way of bullying Ipswich out of their desire for a Unitary Ipswich. Unitary Ipswich was then, in turn, killed off by Hazel Blears. The excuse she gave was that the proposals Ipswich got approved didn’t work for the rest of the county, but the reality was that it wasn’t in Labour’s narrow partisan interest for a North Haven council, including much of the rural hinterland between Tory voting Felixstowe and Labour voting Ipswich, to succeed.
I used to think that a Unitary Suffolk would be the best way of organising local Government in the county. It would have the size for genuine economies of scale. It would have the ability to properly invest in communities, without the need for large variations in council tax. It would be able to retain that local connection to communities, while simultaneously becoming large enough to fight for them on a national stage.
But after seven years of living in Ipswich, my thoughts have changed radically. Ipswich now has no representation on the County Council’s main decision making organ, the Cabinet, at all. The county town, one third of the county’s population and two thirds of its economy, completely unrepresented. Suffolk County Council routinely fails Ipswich. We have some of the worst performing schools in the county – and that’s in a county that has some of the worst results in the country. There are NO outstanding secondary schools in Ipswich. We have some of the worst roads in the county, though granted Ipswich Borough Council had autonomy on highway maintenance until the last couple of years. We are being held back by the dead hand of this behemoth.
There is a different way. If Suffolk County Council, Ipswich Borough Council and the relevant districts could agree to the Ipswich Haven proposals – already approved by Government once – albeit refreshed for the current situation, then we could see Ipswich’s historic independence restored before the end of this Parliament. If Colin Noble, David Ellesmere, Ray Herring, Jennie Jenkins, and Derrick Haley can come to an agreement, along with the lobbying efforts of Ben Gummer MP, Therese Coffey MP, James Cartlidge MP, and Dan Poulter MP, then what could possibly go wrong?
Ipswich needs a Unitary Council. It needs that freedom to grow. To control its own destiny. Ipswich, without the dead hand of Suffolk County Council, would be the most prosperous town in the East of England. Greg Clarke MUST give our town that freedom.