An elected mayor for Norfolk?

Here’s the text of the article I submitted to the EDP on Norfolk’s ‘Devo Deal’

Not long after I first came to the county – a fresh-faced teen arriving at UEA in the 1980s – students elected a gerbil as President of our Students’ Union. We were young and a bit daft, but it sent a message too: whoever, whatever, was in the job we didn’t see that it would make much difference to our lives. So a family pet would do.

Norfolk folk could be forgiven for feeling the same way about the new ‘County Deal’ which brings with it a new post of directly elected Mayor or leader for the county. We’re all a bit sick of politicians and their bright ideas right now. Maybe it’s worth a second look, though.

The Conservative leadership of the County Council has stretched the figures to claim the Deal will bring £600 million of investment to Norfolk. The new money coming to the county will be a lot less than that. But that’s not where the real wins are. It kick-starts efforts to make local government work better for local people – efforts that have had a long history of false starts. And it puts Norfolk at the top table when it comes to future discussions about how money will be spent and decisions made.

The deal has avoided the mistake of giving us more politicians supported by more expensive bureaucrats. The more layers of local government there are, the harder it is to hold politicians to account for their decisions. It is already too easy to make everything seem like someone else’s fault. Instead, the only change in structure is that the leader of the County Council will be directly elected by voters. The new leader would be accountable to you and able to put together their team of senior people regardless of the colour of their party rosette.

The County Council already has a budget of around £1.5 billion a year and runs vital services for some of Norfolk’s most vulnerable residents. You might think they don’t run some of them very well but it’s clear that the job of leading the council is a big and serious one. Imagine how the leader might focus on your priorities if they knew you could boot them out of the job.

We will still have a County Council, District Councils, Parish and Town Councils, plus a Police and Crime Commissioner. Even the Norfolk and Suffolk Local Enterprise Partnership will likely limp on in some form after the County Council takes on its powers. We are not getting control of water and drainage management. Local control of health and education could have been a real game changer but that’s not on the agenda either (other than more say over the adult education budget). At least not for now. Access to GPs and dentists is a huge problem for the people I represent on the council – imagine if, in future, people could have a direct say over where new surgeries are located and the services that are offered.

Yet the deal can be the start of the story, not the end of it. An effective leader would have direct access to the people in power in London. There would be a chance to make the case for Norfolk to have more power and more resources. Just as someone like Andy Burnham has done for Greater Manchester. If they are brave and skilled enough to do it.

The deal is not perfect, but it is the best that’s on offer. We will owe it to ourselves to give the job of leading the county to someone who can really make a difference for Norfolk. That won’t be a gerbil, or a comedian, or a celebrity chef for that matter. But that would be our choice and it would be for the candidates to show us the difference they can make to all our lives. That’s got to be a good start.