The Lincolnshire devolution agreement – Will it make any difference?

During his budget speech last week, the Chancellor, the Rt Hon George Osborne MP, announced that several areas, including what he termed ‘the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership’ (GLLEP) were to be given powers and extra cash to take on certain responsibilities from central government.

As someone who has supported the principle of devolution and federalism for most of my adult life, I have to say that I am delighted that the first step towards this worthwhile goal has at last been taken. Mind you, if it had been left to Mr Spock to pass judgement, the inscrutable Vulcan would have probably said to his captain; “It’s devolution, Jim, but not as we know it!”

The document, which was released to coincide with Mr Osborne’s announcement, signed by himself, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon. Greg Clark MP, and by the political leaders of all first and second tier councils from the Humber to the Wash, as well as by the Co-op’s Ursula Lidbetter MBE, the Chair of the GLLEP, is not yet the master plan for a brighter future for us around here.

To coin a phrase used by Jacob Rees-Mogg MP to describe the Prime Minister’s recent ‘agreement’ with the EU, it’s pretty thin gruel, but sustaining nevertheless. However, before it becomes law, it requires a period of consultation and agreement from all the original signatories.

It could easily be blown off course by events this year, notably depending on how the nation votes on June 23 and the repercussions it might have for the future of this present government.

Given the problems we have had in the past in getting all seven district councils and the county council to agree on anything, by adding to the mix the two unitary councils south of the Humber, herding cats might be a better option.

If it does take off, it’s ironic that, by the creation of an administrative body from the Humber to the Wash, we are just about back to where we were in local government before the Commission under the Chairmanship of Oxford academic, Baron John Redcliffe-Maud (1906-1982) produced a report in 1969, which led to the setting up of Humberside Council and the present two tier system that we have in Lincolnshire today.

So, what’s in the offer from central government? There’s £15 million per annum at least for the next five years, and hopefully for 30 years, with the possibility of fast tracking infrastructure projects to the tune of a further £23 million.

For this to happen, the GLLEP looks as if it will have to accept the principle of an elected Mayor, who will work with the leaders of the ten local councils to deliver a Strategic Economic Plan, which “aims to increase the value of the Greater Lincolnshire Economy by over £8 billion, creating more than 29,000 new jobs, and delivering at least 100,000 new homes”.

Other aspects of the agreement cover 16+ skills training and a more flexible approach to prisoner rehabilitation, with the final caveat that “further powers may be agreed over time and included in future legislation.”

Assuming everything goes to plan and the deal is accepted not only by the councils and their partners in the GLLEP but, more importantly, by parliament, we can expect an extra election in May next year and people are already speculating as to who will put themselves forward to be our first GLLEP elected mayor.

If the enthusiasm shown by the public is similar to that shown for the election of the Police and Crime Commissioners then it will be hard for the successful candidate to secure anything like a mandate. However, if having an elected mayor, who, in any case, would have to sell his or her ideas to the other council leaders, will start the devolution ball rolling, then, in my opinion, it is a price worth paying.

As I said earlier, as someone who feels that local politicians are every bit as well equipped to make decisions affecting local people as are those at Westminster, I am hoping that this will just be the start of reinvigorating local government which has over most of the last century had the life increasingly sucked out of it by central government and reduced to an irrelevance in the eyes of many people.

For this to be successful it is vital, in my opinion, that we reduce the number of councils currently operating from the Humber to the Wash.

In the first paragraph of the Governance Agreement there is an interesting sentence: “There is no intention to take existing powers from local authorities without agreement, (my emphasis) protecting the integrity of local authorities in Greater Lincolnshire.”

What this tells me is that a restructuring of local government in the area is not explicitly ruled out. The problem would be to get agreement from the local councils for this to happen.

If the ‘Greater Lincolnshire Powerhouse’ does take off, the kind of things it should be looking at are, in addition to reducing the number of local councils to, say, three or four (possibly by combining North and North East Lincolnshire Councils and creating two or three unitary councils out of the present county/district council system in the rest of Lincolnshire), looking seriously at dualling the A15 north of Lincoln and the A17 to Kings Lynn.

What about finishing off a proper Ring Road around Lincoln as well? Could we also possibly expect better public transport across the region as well?

With around one third of the best agricultural land in the country, and massive potential along the south bank of the Humber, including Scunthorpe, Immingham and Grimsby, not forgetting the opportunity for tourism on the east coast and historic Lincoln, to name just two areas, Greater Lincolnshire has much to offer.

This could literally be the start for a brighter future for us all. Don’t let’s spoil it by indulging in negativity or cynicism. Let’s go for it!