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  • Writer's pictureResPublica

Why the East needs Maximum Devolution — Comments in response to The Queen’s Speech

The government’s flagship policy to level-up England’s regions took centre stage in today's Queen’s Speech. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill aims to spread opportunity more equally across the UK. This is critical to the East of England where many rural areas, coastal towns and villages face significant economic challenges.

But much more is needed, according to the leading voice for growth, investment and connectivity in the region, the Eastern Powerhouse. The lack of directly elected leaders is an obstacle to progress, according to Eastern Powerhouse Chairman, James Palmer:

“For too long the East of England has been left behind and overlooked. The significant untapped potential of the East of England and what it can contribute to the UK economy has been grossly underestimated. Local leaders must work collaboratively to raise the profile of the whole region and show the ambition to make this region the economic powerhouse we know it can be. Strengthening local accountability via directly elected leaders, such as mayors, is a necessary measure to wrestle power away from central government and achieve the best possible devolution deal for the region.”

The East of England is losing out to other parts of the UK. It has received 40% less Levelling Up funding than other regions, which are also benefiting from a much larger share of public investment. In 2020/21, transport spending in the East of England was just £678 per head compared with £1,476 per head in London, below the UK average of £737, with overall expenditure on buses the lowest of all English regions. Additionally, the East has the lowest health spend per capita in the UK (£2,974 compared with £3,271 nationally) and a lower-than-average education spend (£1,357 compared with £1.428).

Businesses, MPs and local government in the East are determined to work collectively to ensure the region benefits more equitably from the levelling up programme. The Eastern Powerhouse was formally launched in March to make the case for investment in the region and unlock the many opportunities for growth.

It is badly needed, according to the Director of the Eastern Powerhouse and the ResPublica think tank, Phillip Blond:

"The Government lacks a coherent plan for economic growth, it has targets and missions but no direction or sense of priority or indeed resource. Instead of a scattergun approach, aiming at disadvantage and all too often missing the target, we need a regional approach that links place, opportunity and investment. Levelling up requires making the best of everything everywhere, and that needs radical devolution, not just to particular places but to whole regions."

Stronger local and regional leadership is critical. Importantly the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill makes provision to strengthen legislation in order to expand devolution deals to more places in England. Norfolk and Suffolk County Councils have already been invited as part of the first wave of authorities to negotiate new county deals, with the aim to agree a deal by this autumn.

Says James Palmer:

"It is vital that these deals are agreed and implemented as soon as possible, with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution currently on offer. This needs to include greater control over transport funding and the powers to identify key transport networks that are so important to connecting the region’s growth hubs and economic assets."

This will also mean adopting the government’s preferred model for directly elected ‘mayors’ or ‘governors’.

Says Phillip Blond:

"Anything less will undermine ambition and disadvantage the region, at the same time as other parts of the country, which already have Mayoral Combined Authorities, deepen their devolution deals and continue to forge ahead with their pan-regional agendas. Cities in the North and Midlands have already received billion-pound settlements to support their sustainable transport projects, while the spending review has identified an additional £96bn for the Integrated Rail Plan in the North and Midlands”.

Decisions on Mayoral Combined Authorities reside with local government, although legislative changes to reduce the two-thirds majority currently required for a council to agree a deal may tempt areas to go for the directly-elected leader model. Despite this, UK businesses are unequivocal in their support for business-friendly devolution deals and directly elected mayors. Both the British Chamber and CBI have widely welcomed the accountability of an elected figurehead in Mayoral Combined Authorities. As the leading voice of business and civic leadership across the East of England, the Eastern Powerhouse is also hoping to see a similar approach for future county deals.

The economic dividends for the region are considerable. Levelling up transport, health, education, and skills, will boost GDP by tens of billions of pounds each year. It has been estimated that, if the East of England were able to level up to the Southeast (excluding London), it would deliver an extra £31.2bn a year in GDP for the national economy. That would mean a £11.5bn of additional tax-take for the Exchequer; and an annual increase in disposable income of £3,100 for every resident in the East of England.

Regional Priorities

The Eastern Powerhouse is working with member business to identify regional economic priorities and remove barriers to growth.

Partner at Carter Jonas, William Rooke, highlights three priorities:

  • "Investment in rail infrastructure, especially the Cambridge to Ipswich line to improve connectivity with the necklace towns of Cambs and Suffolk

  • Designating Life Science uses as critical to national infrastructure to allow the release of sustainable development sites in the green belt for high quality campus developments around Cambridge, along with associated affordable residential accommodation

  • Establishing a green-tech hub along the A11 between Cambridge and Norwich, with funding available to invest in renewable energy businesses and business rates rebates to firms developing technology supportive of independent renewable energy policy"

CEO of the Eastern Colleges Group, Nikos Savvas, prioritises better links between skills providers and employers:

“The desire to improve education outcomes should always be applauded, and the recently published education white paper entitled Opportunity For All outlines the educational priorities that underpin the levelling up agenda. What is critical, however, is that 'levelling up' does not mean 'cutting off'. We need to ensure that better outcomes are not just about grades for grades sake, but lead to genuinely enhanced life chances. The link between the education sector and employers is vital to this, and needs to be further strengthened so there are clear pathways for our brilliant young people to drive forward our businesses and economies, and in turn their own opportunities.”

Managing Director of Atomic Acquisitions and Chair of Institute of Directors, East of England, Biplab Rakshi, highlights the region’s economic advantages:

"The foundations of levelling up should be based on economic growth. For businesses in the region this means addressing near term issues like cost of energy, employee retention, skills development. The Eastern region has some of the best academic institutions and, due to proximity to other markets, makes us ideal to develop sectors like AI and other technologies which will be the future of UK prosperity.”

The Eastern Powerhouse is holding a series of regional conferences and seminars in May, June and July to better define regional economic priorities and bring these urgently to the attention of Government. Details can be found here:

Notes for Editors:

  • The Eastern Powerhouse is a business-led organisation that is making the strategic argument for investment in the East of England. It platforms the whole of the East as a single interconnected region, encompassing its coastal towns, rural villages and world-class cities. It showcases the region’s untapped potential and aims to unlock opportunities for growth. Ultimately, it will lead to greater prosperity for people in the East of England.

For more information, call Jonathan Horsman on 07880 786582


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