Governing England: English Identity and Institutions

governing england

Almost two years ago I was invited to attend a roundtable in Cambridge following the collapse of the Norfolk and Suffolk Devolution idea and the beginning of the emergence of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

The British Academy convened the roundtable, and it was one of a series of evidence gathering events culminating in a book entitled Governing England: English Identity and Institutions in a Changing United Kingdom (Proceedings of the British Academy). So just before Christmas, I found myself at its launch at the Brtish Academy’s grand Headquarters overlooking the Mall in London listening to its co-authors talk about their research, observations and work which the book pulls together. Available from selective bookshops at a whopping £65.00 but it makes for an interesting read particularly for someone who lived and breathed the Devolution period in local government.

Devolution came forward as an idea, which Suffolk took on board and who Leaders in Local Government including me thought was something we could use to help grow our Suffolk economy. What followed was government interference in a system they knew little of, what’s that saying about ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Four days after submitting a Suffolk bid, DCLG directed that Norfolk and Suffolk come together which was particularly disappointing at the time having regularly through the period sense checked that a Suffolk bid would be acceptable for weeks before the deadline. After many meetings, Leaders were summons to the government offices in Cambridge and told in no uncertain terms that it had to be Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk or no deal. Only to be told a few weeks later, ‘no scrub that’, Cambridgeshire can do it on their own. And Norfolk and Suffolk must merge, long story short, that deal was eventually technically and legally scuppered when the Borough of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk pulled out and its collapsed.

[the timeline above is truncated, but as fantastical as it sounds, the sequence is accurate].

Fast forward, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority exists with a powerful Mayor who brings real money into the Cambridgeshire system albeit into a governance arrangement where each senior leader has to find their feet and voice as to how best to work together. That element looks like a real challenge and looking at it with hindsight into the Suffolk and Norfolk version it was always going to be the greatest challenge. I suppose I always knew that more than most, given my experience as Norfolk and Suffolk Area Chairman for the Conservative Party at the time. Given our dominance on most of the councils, I knew, first hand the very different cultures of the councils involved. And thus the near impossible task to pull together despite the large sum of funding finance that came with it, ultimately not an enough of an incentive for Councils and more accurately Councillors to seed some control to a Mayor or the collective of a Combined Authority.

Today in West Suffolk the challenge is about looking towards the Cambridge economic sub-regional and where it leaves our local government relationship with the rest of Suffolk. Unitary plans of varying size splutter on in different places and lingers in dark corridors in others. Leaders come and go, including me, but the financial challenges remain, all of which seems lost in the current turmoil of Brexit. One day even Brexit will be settled, and the need to focus on economic growth and the money or lack of it will return as the most significant question of our time is how we afford to support vulnerable Adults and children in our communities as we would want to.

And so, the question of local government reorganisation will also return, to which the Brtish Acemdey book is a significant contribution to where we are at as a nation, our sense of self and our forms of governance from exiting the EU to Westminster, local government and the union. The book is thus well worth the cost and effort, it’s not a light read!

Suffolk – A14 Growth Gateway

Recently I was at a business lunch, and a couple of business people I know asked whatever became of my Suffolk A14 Growth Strategy I launched just before I was dumped as Leader of Suffolk County Council, their words, not mine!  It was something recently I blogged about in April and was launching at the various events around Suffolk before I stopped being Leader.

As I said at the time as Leader and Cabinet member for Economic Development part of the role is to think about how you might take Suffolk forward.  So, I came up with this strategy, built in part of some of the spatial work the County, District and Borough Councils developed, during and post the Devolution debates.  And in part the New Anglia LEP Economic Strategy work called ‘The East’ on who’s Board I sat at the time.  All which steps to a wider Economic growth strategy.  Once presented to councillors, I started a series of engagement events with the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce.  We started this off with the first of a series of dinners and exporting speaking events, all designed to start a debate and lead up to a Conference on Monday 25th June in Ipswich to launch the strategy ahead of a focused year ‘s work to put some flesh on the bones.  The idea was that the conference would be an annual event and we would seek to measure the progress of the strategy with the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce on a quarterly basis to make sure that we remained focused on its outcomes.

In essence, the idea was/is to help Suffolk Companies have space to grow and support to export.  Then longer term to encourage businesses from across Britain to relocate to Suffolk because of fast-tracked business parks along the A14 and easy access to the Port of Felixstowe to exported across the world.  But with a focus on exporting into China through Hong Kong.  A short paragraph to sum up a focus and determination to provide the sort of high-quality jobs we want to see in Suffolk in manufacturing and to help this country export.

One of the things I did produce was a PowerPoint presentation that I used to explain my thinking which seemed to have unanimous support from my colleagues and those business people I shared it with.  But it appears the strategy’s been dropped?  Or will it reappear as someone else’s grand vision at some future point will be interesting to see!

So here is that presentation I wrote:

Inaugural Chamberlain Lecture

On Monday evening I was invited to attend the inaugural Chamberlain Lecture hosted by BT at BT Tower in London. Sir Merrick Cockell, former Chairman of the LGA, opened the proceeding, introducing Lord Heseltine who spent the next hour weaving a fine speech about Chamberlain’s time in local Government, and as a Westminster politician with his own life story, his time influencing Local Government and snippets from his ‘No stone unturned’ paper.  Followed by a Q&A session chaired by Rt. Hon Stephen Dorrell.

He spoke of mayors and unitary authorities and his time as number 2 to Peter Walker the then Local Government Minister and the notion to reorganise Local Government broadly speak on County Boundaries in the 1970’s.  It never happened in England, but it did happen in Scotland where the Conservative government created county unitary councils, slightly ironic that since Scottish devolution the Scottish Parliament, with precious little to do, has taken stripped Scottish councils of the powers given to them by a Conservative government all those years ago, but I digress.

Fast forward to the Conservative Government of 2015, and Lord Heseltine found himself back in favour and following on from his paper ‘No stone unturned’ and with the support of the new Prime Minister, David Cameron and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourn.  Lord Heseltine worked alongside SoS DCLG Greg Clarke MP to drive forward English Devolution.  I was leading Suffolk County Council at the time and remember well the meeting on 15th February 2016 we held in Cambridge where we discussed what was going to happen which proved to be very different to what actually happened.

2016_02_15 Devolution with Lord H & Greg Clarke

The picture above is from my archives, and I recall the blog I wrote on 16th February 2016 which you can find by scrolling down this page, how times flies!  Then, it was about Combined Authorities with a Mayor, and I think when I look at those created they are far too complicated.  Nowadays perhaps the debate is more centred on unitary councils forming.  To my mind, this is sensible.

Let’s face it unitaries make sense; two-tier does not.  Lord Heseltine did reform Local Government in Scotland and putting aside the issues with the Scottish Parliament, can you imagine today saying to the large county based unitary authorities in Scotland we are now going to propose two-tier.  Where some duties are going to remain you, but others are going to smaller councils, and the public will have to figure out for themselves which is which, confusing or what!  Once a place goes unitary no one would ever suggest a return to two-tier, and I think that is an acid test.

What struck me as I listened to Lord Heseltine on Monday evening, sitting next to Martin Tett the Leader of Buckinghamshire who is currently trying to lead a unitary Buckinghamshire bid, that each new idea in Government is often not that new and each has a window of opportunity that comes along and goes almost as quickly.  Today the debate seems to be is centred on the creation of new unitary councils, so fundamentally possible reorganisation with little new money attached; and slowly we seem to be moving to a discussion, not on Majors or devolution but the size of unitary councils rather than the concept of unitary.

Of course, Lord Heseltine continues to propose that change comes with Mayors as influential leaders of place able to get things down, a system that seems a bit un-British as we instead like our discussions and complexity.  But we do have some Mayors, and it is interesting to watch as they seek to forge a way forward for themselves and their embryonic power base.  I think the jury is out on these at the moment and of course, each of them has a complex system of governance to work with, not to mention fellow politicians and councillors!

End of Year 2016

2016 New YearSo, as 2016 draws to a close, it’s a bizzare year to sum up.

On the personal front, it’s been a terrible one as we lost Dad in far too sudden circumstances.  We all miss him a lot.  It a strange thing to say when you ‘painted’ as this old hard-nosed individual but it’s a moment in life when both your parents have gone, of course we all must go through it, but it still a sobering moment for each of us.  Over Christmas, Lisa and I visited an Aunt of hers who is learning to live with Dementia, a dear lady I have known for 19 years who is struggling and in contrast before we left we travelled further north to visit my Auntie who is older but as sharp as a pin and in top form!  Old age is a strange journey and there is no play-book but what I do know is that this country has to wake up to the needs of an ageing population or we will sleep walk into an unpleasant society where old age is not celebrated but seen as a burden.  There are many things on the horizon but how we change our health and social care system and start building homes that address the needs of older people is right up there.

The highlight of the year for me as a Councillor, was being introduced to Her Majesty the Queen at the Home of Horse-Racing Museum official opening.  As we awaited her arrival I chatted with David Burnip the former CE of FHDC and asked him if he remembered my stance on the Palace House purchase and rescue, by the council, all those years ago.  He did, I was against it!  And we reminisced about the then District Council Leader Geoffrey Jaggard and his vision.  The day was all about the Racing Community and how Newmarket can capitalise more on being the world headquarters of Racing but without the decision taken by these two chaps all those year ago to rescue a tumbled down spooky old house and semi delicate yard, none of it would have been possible.  If you ever find yourself in Newmarket do go along as it’s a world class museum and the way it helps you understand of the science of Horse-racing is impressive. Not to mention the heritage and art which is just stunning.

On the national and international political front, it’s been a staggering year where the rule book has been ripped up.  You can see that Brexit is going to be the most complex, time consuming thing for our Government to get right and make sure our economy does not suffer more that it has too.  I suspect the history books will have a somewhat mixed view on David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister but I briefly met him at Felixstowe Docks 100 days from the Referendum and he spoke with passion and conviction that strangely was not the hallmark of the remain campaign which seemed to me to fail to make the points about access to the single market being vital to our economy and that the vast majority of those working in Britain from Europe where either here ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ style contributing to our industry or here raising their families and paying their taxes, i.e. contributing not taking British jobs.  The government and our new Prime Minister must find a way to get the best possible exit we can and that won’t be easy.

Internationally we will shortly watch the inauguration of a new American President and I recall the hope and expectation that hung in the air at President Obamas’, I suspect the world will watch with different feelings at President Trumps’.

Here in Suffolk I have had the pleasure to lead the County Council and the frustration of Devolution.  I say pleasure to lead the County Council because it is.  There is lots more to do and we are doing it but I am proud of the staff, the Cabinet and my group and how they have all risen to the challenge of significantly less Government funding and our demand that the Council lives within its means and maintains a sensible level of reserves.  As I look about the sector our cautious, prudent approach puts us in a place that is very different from some councils beyond Suffolk, there begins to be real concern that some councils may start to run out of money and fail to deliver front line services, I have often said that unlike the NHS, if councils run out of money the cheques don’t just carry on being honoured, staff will not get paid and services will fail, not here in Suffolk.  As a political party, we pledged and have delivered 7 years of 0% base Council Tax rises only putting up the Council tax to pay for the National Living Wage which everyone agrees is the right thing to do for the lowest paid workers in our society.  However I say a frustrating year in terms of Devolution because across Suffolk we can see how it can help us reshape Public Services and be a part of how we create a community that addresses the needs of our ageing population at the same time as investing in new infrastructure to accelerate growth and housing, which is vital for the quality of life we will want to see.  Yet at the end of the year Suffolk has no deal.  Cambridgeshire does but not Suffolk. The Public surveys, the business leaders and their respective trade bodies and all councils agree we want a Suffolk based Devolution deal, will we get one, it certainly won’t be for the want of trying and or effort.

Looking ahead… well that’s another blog!

If you have been kind enough to read this, may I take the opportunity to wish you and your family a very Happy, Healthy and Successful New Year.


In the past couple of weeks, we have seen lots of discussion on Devolution both national and locally.  Unsurprisingly, a couple of weeks ago, the vote to withdraw by Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough council from the devolution process resulted in the Government scrapping the Norfolk and Suffolk deal.  South Norfolk and Broadlands voted overwhelmingly to continue but Norfolk County Council then decided to cancel its meeting.  In Suffolk, however the Leaders, including myself, decided, following some useful conversations with DCLG Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, that we should attempt to conclude a deal for Suffolk alone (which might or might not include some willing partners Council areas from Norfolk and/or Essex).

Accordingly, last week across Suffolk meetings scheduled to approve the Norfolk/Suffolk deal went ahead and Councillors were asked to debate the following ‘amendment’ to the motion:

That Council agrees:

  1. To reiterate the commitment, given at its June meeting, to Devolution as a means for delivering accelerated growth in the local and national economy and helping local people and places fulfil their potential;
  2. To authorise the Leader and Chief Executive to:
  3. a)      seek an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the Government’s intentions around devolution;
  4. b)      work with Government and local partners to agree an alternative devolution deal as soon as possible
  5. That further reports are presented to the Authority, as appropriate, as the Devolution process progresses.

During the debate at Suffolk County Council, myself and the CE Deborah Cadman set out the broad terms of what Devolution for Suffolk would bring in the first instance of new funding and local determination and talked about where a Combined Authority might look to take Devolution next, drawing on the route map that Manchester has established.

What emerged was as you might expect, those who see the journey and think it’s worth taking, those who are deeply suspicion of Government but will hang in there for now, those who just want a unitary Council for Suffolk and those who think it’s a distraction from the significant task ahead for the County Council to balance delivery of vital services with the savings that must be made.

The motion was carried overwhelmingly by 57 votes, with 7 councillors abstaining, and so we continue to talk with Government about Suffolk Devolution.

To my mind its relatively simple, is the solution to protecting front line services from our schools to our hospitals and social care to growing our economy or addressing the long-term funding gap that faces public services, in the gift of the County Council or best served by a reorganisation of local councils, of course not.  The way forward for the delivery of better way forward in Suffolk is together, a more joined up way forward and a way that allows for real decisions to be taken here in Suffolk rather than in Whitehall.  Now that is worth pursuing.

Just another layer of government, just what we don’t need:

One of the re-occurring theme I have heard these past few weeks at Business Breakfasts, in discussion with Parish and Town Councils and on Twitter both in tweets and retweets at my Devolution Twitter surgery on Wednesday, and at public engagements events in Lowestoft on Thursday lunchtime and Saturday morning in front of the Apex in Bury St. Edmunds is a worry that the Combined Authority and the Mayor will cost a lot more and why would we want that.

And you know what, it’s a fair question.  The first part is simply dealt with, it will be staffed by existing officers and Chief Executives alongside Council Leaders and no one will be earning anymore.  In Suffolk, we have experience of this with a strong and active Suffolk Public Sectors Leaders board where we often take decisions as a collective. This then leads to the question, well, why do you need a Combined Authority, can’t you ‘just do it’?  In part that would be possible, albeit that many of the powers we need are a part of the devolution deal to ‘just do it’, without Devolution this would mean the money would not be forthcoming and you know what, it’s a lot of money, so we would be daft not to explore this further. It’s fair to say that a Mayor and a Mayor’s office would come with costs. Whoever stands to be the proposed Mayor must seek to deliver real savings in local government, far beyond the cost of its creation; offering efficiencies across the entire system to protect front line services that local people rely on.  This is about building on the partnership working that already takes place within local government and with health and business, offering residents the quality of service they have a right to expect.

I think that Devolution is a new and real opportunity for the proposed Mayor and Combined Authority to deliver real savings in local government, far beyond what we currently think of being local government.

Please do have a look at and fill in the questionnaire to have your views heard.

So this Devolution thingy?

We know from the previous Ipsos Mori public engagement with a cross section of the community in Suffolk, residents are clearly interested in finding out how devolution can deliver tangible long term economic growth, and improvements to transport and health within Suffolk and their immediate community.

The deal on the table for Suffolk and Norfolk is one of the best in the country.  It offers our communities significant opportunities for new job creation, with new housing development to support our growing economy and the money to invest in roads and infrastructure to connect our communities and businesses with the rest of the region and beyond.

As I said in my blog on Monday Ipsos Mori are conducting an extensive telephone survey but we also want to hear what everyone thinks and to hear from as many people as possible. But do the public agree?  So, yesterday as a part of the work being undertaken across Norfolk and Suffolk, saw me, standing outside Ipswich railway station handing out leaflets to busy commuters as they rushed for their train asking them to have a look at the web site and to fill in the questionnaire. Tonight, I will be at a Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC) meeting (that’s Parish and Town Councils to you and me) at Pakenham to discuss the deal, the Combined Authority and the Mayor and asking them to spread the word.

So please have a look at


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