Is the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal now dead in the water?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 21 Oct 2016

The Greater Lincolnshire deal looks in jeopardy after one of the ten councils involved voted against the proposed £450 million settlement. Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly looks at whether the devolution deal has a future.

AN ACT of sabotage or a reflection of the will of the people?

Whatever the motivation that lay behind it, yesterday Lincolnshire County Council plunged the proposed power transfer from central government to a Greater Lincolnshire "super authority" into doubt when it voted against the move.

At a meeting of the full council, 43 councillors voted against, while 17 voted for and five abstained.

The vote was not a deciding call but a recommendation for the leader of the council, Martin Hill, who will have to make a final decision by November 21.

Mr Hill will have quite a conundrum on his hands – should he ignore the majority of his council and approve it or instead reject the offer and, with it, torpedo the chances of Greater Lincolnshire devolution becoming a reality?

Rejecting it could be fatal. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, as revealed by the Telegraph, told council leaders – in an "all or nothing" ultimatum – that the ten local authorities would each have to sign up to the terms or the money would come off the table.

The vote at yesterday's Lincolnshire County Council meeting. If given the go-ahead, the proposal, covering from the Humber to the Wash, would give the authorities £15 million annually for 30 years, taking control of transport, housing, job training, flood risk management and many other areas currently dictated by Whitehall.

The added caveat was an elected mayor, with an office costing about £2.3 million, to oversee the new powers.

Seven of the ten councils have already approved the terms, with North East Lincolnshire Council, North Lincolnshire Council and East Lindsey District Council among them.

But Lincolnshire County councillors said they were opposed to an elected mayor and also pointed to a public consultation which was overwhelmingly against the devolution plans.

Sir Edward Leigh MP, a vocal opponent of the Greater Lincolnshire deal, said he was "delighted" that the county council had "courage to see through" the Government's hardline approach.

He accused Mr Javid of being "childish" in telling Lincolnshire it was "all or nothing" and called on the county to unite behind a new model.

The Market Rasen MP favours setting up a board, made up of representatives from the ten councils, which would be run by an independent chair.

He said any devolution concept that included a mayor was "now dead".

"It is absurd to say we can't have devolution without a mayor," said the veteran Tory backbencher.

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"The Government were terrified that if we stood firm then the big cities, like Manchester and Liverpool, would turn around and say they wanted devolution without a mayor too.

"I think we can argue that Lincolnshire is different. It is a mainly rural county with a small population, a low rate base and active parish, district, county, unitary councils.

"I have no idea if we are going to win on this and I fear we might not," he continued.

"(But) this deal is now dead in terms of a mayor.

"The Government needs to be open and fair minded and accept the will of the people."

Sir Edward said he feared the "alien structure" of a county mayor would have seen the smaller councils abolished and their powers being swept up by the mayor's office.

Even if the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) return and say devolution is off the cards, Sir Edward said the county council had still done the right thing in rejecting it.

"We wouldn't have ended up with more money (through devolution), I'm convinced of that," he said.

Conservatives politicians are far from united on this, however. In fact, Lincolnshire County Council leader Mr Hill told members yesterday that "this deal would secure the future of Greater Lincolnshire" and argued that it would secure "preferential treatment" from the Government further down the line.

Andrew Percy, Northern Powerhouse Minister and MP for Brigg, spoke in favour of the deal just hours before yesterday's vote.

He said it was "without a doubt" that the handover of powers would "be of huge benefit to nearly one million people across the area."

Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers is another backer of the concept. He confirmed he will be lobbying the Communities Secretary to hold fast to the promise of devolution for his constituents.

"We should go ahead and not allow an authority, which in no way speaks for the people of Cleethorpes and Northern Lincolnshire, to block a deal which would be to our advantage," he said.

"I will be certainly writing to the Secretary of State and hopefully having a word with him and press home that we should not allow an area that is not representative of my constituents to scupper a deal."

Labour MP for Great Grimsby, Melanie Onn, declined to comment on the result. A spokesman said Ms Onn had nothing to add to her joint letter with Sir Edward, as reported on in the Telegraph, calling on councillors to vote down the Greater Lincolnshire proposal.

In the cross-party letter, they said the deal "fell far short" of expectations and raised fears that an imposed mayor would take decisions away from the people, rather than bringing them closer.

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Victoria Atkins, Tory MP for Louth, also declined to comment.

Despite the result, the fight has not gone from Northern Lincolnshire leaders.

Councillor Ray Oxby, Labour leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, said he would be "assessing the position" after the remaining authorities had taken a vote but said the council remained "absolutely clear" about the benefits of devolution.

"As I said during the debate before we voted, any major decision comes with risks and benefits," he said.

"No proposal is or will ever be perfect but this devolution deal, in my view, carries more far more opportunity than risk."

North Lincolnshire Council leader Baroness Liz Redfern added that she was "disappointed" in the outcome at the county council but said it was too soon to comment further.

"It is too early to say what will happen now as we await further clarification," she said.

"We will know more once the remaining two district councils have voted next week."

With South Kesteven District Council's support for the deal also said to be wavering, it could be a long wait for the devolution disciples.

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