East Anglian devolution supporters lobbying local business leaders

Punting, Cambridge Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption George Freeman, North Norfolk MP, called Cambridge "a global growth city and yet within 40 minutes we've got pockets of real deprivation"

The campaign for devolution for East Anglia has suddenly stepped up a gear.

The Mid Norfolk MP and government minister George Freeman has taken the highly unusual, some are saying dramatic, step of writing to business leaders in Cambridgeshire appealing to them to lobby the county council there to join the Norfolk/Suffolk bid.

In his letter, he talks about the "massive potential" of the East of England: "I am concerned that if we don't capitalise on this potential and link Cambridge properly to its surrounding counties, this potential could be lost."

And just to pile on the pressure, he adds that the plans for a Cambridgeshire/Norfolk/Suffolk combined authority has the support of the chancellor, the local government secretary Greg Clark, local MPs and the man overseeing the government's devolution project, Lord Heseltine.

Suffolk and Norfolk county councils have been talking about taking more powers from Whitehall for the last year.

They want more control over things like transport, planning, health services and flood defences but ministers considered their bid too small.

They were advised to cast their net wider and invite Cambridgeshire to join them.

Last month, though, Cambridgeshire politely said no.

'Eastern powerhouse'

It would be interested in more closer working, it said, but didn't want to be part of a combined authority.

This has clearly frustrated MPs like George Freeman, who are great advocates of an "Eastern Powerhouse".

"We have in Cambridge a global growth city and yet within 40 minutes we've got pockets of real deprivation and that's because our infrastructure has not been planned strategically," he said.

"We've got to think much more strategically about our area. If we were more ambitious and worked together we could raise a lot of investment internationally for East Anglia."

We understand that Mr Freeman has been one of several MPs quietly lobbying behind the scenes for a joint Cambridgeshire/Norfolk/Suffolk bid.

Other key players, we are told, have been the Conservative West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock and the Cambridge MP, Labour's Daniel Zeichner.

The rebuff from the Cambridgeshire side, including views from the County Council, the Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership and other public bodies, has clearly spurred them to take further action.

As well as Mr Freeman appealing to the local business community, we understand Lord Heseltine is to visit Cambridge for talks, possibly accompanied by Greg Clark.

And the group that represents businesses in Norfolk and Suffolk, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, is also believed to be doing its own quiet lobbying.

"The pressure is building, you are going to see things happen soon," one senior minister has told us.

But the initial response from Cambridgeshire has been lukewarm.

"We are keen to listen and question them about what benefits we can achieve for the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough who we serve." said a spokesman for the county council.

"However, any devolution deal would require support from our partners and authorities."

A couple of business leaders in Cambridge have told us that they believe Norfolk and Suffolk are just trying to get a share of the city's economic magic, while Cambridgeshire is still trying to spread its money as far around the county as it can.

Devolution should be local decision-making, but Westminster seems to be behind this latest banging of heads.

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