Peterborough and Cambridgeshire could come together with a joint authority and an elected mayor, under government devolution proposals. The good news is that the deal would bring more money for transport, housing and other infrastructure. The bad news, for many, is that the government demands an elected mayor.
All the councils in Cambridgeshire and Peterbrough are debating the government’s deal, holding extraordinary meetings. Before voting at Cambridgeshire County Council, I visited Peterborough City Council’s meeting to get a different perspective.
Peterborough Town’s Hall a short stroll from the main railway station, near the city museum and cathedral. It’s imposing from the outside: my problem was getting inside, as the front door was firmly shut, with a small sign directing me to a back entrance in St Peter’s Street.
Once I had found my way in, I was led up some old stone stairs to the public gallery. This gives a good view of the council chamber and you can actually hear the speakers too, which is more than can be said for arrangements at Shire Hall.
The chamber is a mixture of ancient and modern – reasonably enough for a New Town that still has a Norman cathedral and the remains of a prehistoric causeway, Flag Fen. The furniture is up to date with big desks for all those council papers and comfy chairs (such comfort as would not be risked at Shire Hall.) There are lovely old wrought iron lights and a gorgeous ceiling decorated with lilies, roses and thistles. One one wall hang two Victorian worthies and on the other the St George’s flag and the Union Jack. No EU flag.
The meeting opened thoughtfully with prayers and a 1-minute silence for the recently murdered MP Jo Cox.
Although I couldn’t quite tell who was who, the speeches seemed to break down pretty neatly by party: the Conservatives talked up the devolution deal, the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Liberal1 members exposed its deficiencies.
Cllr Seaton proposed the motion, declaring that the deal was Brexit-proof – he’d been given advice. He was pleased about the promises for a University Enterprise Zone and ‘local decisions being taken locally’. It was a great opportunity.
The next councillor talked about how he had sat on a committee arranging devolution. At first, only large metropolitan cities such as London and Manchester were considered, but now the government was extending the offer more widely. Not that he would claim credit…
Lib Dem Darren Fower was less than enthralled. He pointed out several flaws – eight altogether. He said Peterborough was being compromised by having weaker representation on the new body, and by threats to its autonomy on transport and planning. The new authority would inevitably be Conservative. And Cllr Fower was the first – but not the last – to bring up the extra housing money being assigned to Cambridge.
Labour Cllr Ferris questioned the need for an elected mayor. Most cities, when offered a mayor in a referendum, had said no thank you.
Rush and Drew spoke about the proposed consultation. Responses should surely not be only on line. And must be made public. Could there be roadshows?
Cllr Over bemoaned losses when Peterborough split from Cambridgeshire to become a unitary authority in the 1990s. Powers on health and education had been taken away, and Peterborough had been regarded as a colony far up in the north of the county where it could be safety ignored. The new combined authority must meet in between the two cities and not be based in Cambridge.
Labour councillors Murphy and Ellis also criticized the democratic aspects of the deal. Elected Mayor: O, can we not? A mayor could only be denied with a two-thirds majority – much harder than on a council!
Liberal Chris Ash could not support an elected mayor and the extra bureacracy – and wasn’t it undemocratic for the mayor to appoint the deputy? He too was reluctant to join up with Cambridgeshire – good things had happened since breaking away last time.
New councillor Azurula made a passionate maiden speech about the needs of his constituents in North Ward. He wanted the deal to address issues of deprivation, including low life expectancy.
Lib Dem councillor Julia Davidson expressed scepticism about the consultation, as the timetable outlined in the papers allowed no time for comments to be acted on.
The Tories’ responses to the many valid criticisms made were rather weak. They assured the council that future deals would be better and that the consultation might leverage improvements to this one. They ignored the objections to the new mayor and focussed on his location: you never know, he might not be from Cambridge; he might work in Cambridge but live in Peterborough! 2
The Conservatives, having promoted and praised the deal, voted FOR – not surprisingly.
The Liberals and Liberal Democrats, having spoken of several important shortcomings in the deal, voted AGAINST – not surprisingly.
Labour, having highlighted the lack of democracy and made other criticisms without saying one positive word for the deal, voted FOR too. That was rather strange.
The other eight councils in the area are taking their votes this week. So far, Cambridge City, Cambridgeshire and South Cambs have voted in favour of the devolution proposals. The public gets its say over the summer.
1Peterborough has members who sit as Liberals and not as Liberal Democrats, due to a local row at the time when the Liberal Party merged with the SDP.
2The mayor being Conservative AND from Cambridge are unlikely, given that Cambridge has not one Conservative councillor.