Is devolution the answer to levelling up in Suffolk?

Endeavour House

How might devolution affect Suffolk County Council? - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

What would devolution ever do for Suffolk? That was the question being asked as Conservative politicians said this was the way for the county to join the government's "levelling up" ambitions.

But it was still not clear what devolution would do for ordinary residents - and whether it would bring lasting benefits to the area.

The government has confirmed that Suffolk is one of nine areas across the country that will be invited to enter negotiations for a devolution deal - but people are still waiting to see what that would mean on the ground.

Any deal would be part of the government's Levelling Up agenda detailed in a new White Paper - but the East of England section of that contained no details of any new plans, only a list of schemes already under way or with government commitments.

Matthew Hicks

Matthew Hicks said Suffolk councils' ability to work together was crucial to the bid. - Credit: Gregg Brown

And while Conservative councillors and MPs were enthusiastic about the devolution plans, others pointed out that the advantages were not so clear cut.

Conservative county council leader Matthew Hicks is firmly behind the proposal. He said: "We are hugely ambitious for Suffolk, so to be one of the few areas in the country to be offered a county deal is a fantastically welcome opportunity. I am delighted." 

But the Labour leader of Ipswich council, David Ellesmere, felt he had been here before: "I think there are only two council leaders, myself and John Griffiths (of West Suffolk) who were here for the last round of devolution talks.

Ipswich council leader David Ellesmere

David Ellesmere has a sense of deja vu about the return of the devolution debate. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

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"I remember that. We all started with great enthusiasm but then they ground us down with month after month of talks and in the end everything just came to a halt."

It is not clear whether a devolution deal would be based on the existing county structure or whether the government would insist on an elected mayor as part of its price - Suffolk is not thought to be keen on such a position in the county.

And it is even less clear at this stage which services would be included - health, public safety. transport or economic development - all would be part of any negotiation.

The government has made it clear it is looking at the long term - it is talking  of offering all parts of the country a devolution deal by 2030 but that is two general elections away.

However, Ipswich MP Tom Hunt saw the devolution proposal as positive in terms of levelling up.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt welcomed the moves towards devolution. - Credit: PAUL GEATER

He said: “There has been some concern that Suffolk may miss out when it comes to levelling up and that it would all be about the Midlands and the north. I’ve pushed hard to try and make sure we get a look in. Today goes some way to addressing these concerns.

"Whenever there is a new devolution settlement more funding comes about as a result. I’m particularly excited about the prospect of powers over skills and education being devolved. I’ve seen personally how the devolution of adult education budgets can be transformative for local areas.

Skills stock photo

Tom Hunt hoped devolution would enable more public money to go into skills in Suffolk. - Credit: Stock photo

“However, we still need the funding of our core public services, particularly education and police to be looked at. This is crucial for levelling up.

“I’m sceptical about whether an elected Mayor is needed for Suffolk and remain to be convinced whether it’s 100% necessary. Devolution of powers and budgets though. This is something to be truly welcomed.”

The devolution proposals were also welcomed by South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge and West Suffolk's Matt Hancock.

John Dugmore speaking at the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce / EDF Breakfast at Trinity Park

John Dugmore of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce - Credit: David Garrad

The county's business community also saw the positives. Suffolk Chamber chief executive John Dugmore said: "Suffolk needs proper investment in the required infrastructure and skills to unlock our full potential.

"The prospect of a county deal, with more powers being exercised locally rather than from Whitehall could be a game-changer in accelerating Suffolk’s productivity drive and by releasing the full economic and social potential of our communities.

“We very much look forward to working with the county’s public sector partners to ensure that the business voice is understood and listened to and to put the case possible to government for these spending freedoms.”