James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
The job of combined authorities is to increase economic prosperity for the people they serve. Devolution means powers and money are passed into local control, where, combined with local support and specialist knowledge, it can be put to best use.
As part of our devolution deal in 2017, we signed an agreement with central government to double local “Valued Added” by 2042. As I see it, we also have a responsibility to our entire region, not just the major economic centres that make up the majority of that output; to make sure growth and opportunities are spread evenly and fairly, not just in selected areas.
At the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, we achieve this through supporting business growth, housing development, better transport, and enhanced education in every corner of the region. Maximising the great potential in areas that could well be described as “left behind” and in major need of “levelling up”.
Our ability to contribute to the UK economy is huge; in 2017 it was measured to be £22 billion. Before COVID-19, we had already seen local growth over and above expected levels because of interventions we have made. Imagine if the output of Cambridge could be matched across the entire Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region?
Last week, I went in front of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to give evidence on the progress of devolution, where I was asked about the challenges and opportunities that come with Combined Authorities.
Extraordinary national challenges, including COVID-19 and the EU transition, has led to a centralisation of powers and a kick back against further devolution. Despite this, we have managed to achieve exceptional things. Things that would not be possible without a Combined Authority to set a vision and show leadership for the entire region.
By their nature, Combined Authorities are collaborative. Unlike local or national government, decision making requires cross-party consensus. We changed our governance structure so that elected members sit on all our committees, to represent the views of their constituents in co-designing local policies and develop knowledge and expertise in these areas.
We have delivered on our own levelling up agenda by providing more adult education opportunities in the north of the county, typically ‘left behind’ areas of low economic opportunity. We have got spades in the ground and second phase funding from government to deliver a new University for Peterborough, a project which had been going nowhere for over 20 years until the Combined Authority took over, just a couple of years ago. Our pioneering transport projects including the CAM Metro, will better connect the north of the region with the south, helping to crack open the wealth and opportunities that exist there.
Given the events of the Covid-19 response, Government may think Combined Authorities are a problem to manage and be disinclined to trust us further, but I genuinely believe we can be a crucial part of the Covid Recovery. Through partnership working, we can be more agile in meeting the needs of the region. When Covid-19 hit, we responded quickly in collaboration with our Business Board – formerly the Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership – investing almost £6 million of funding into over 170 small and medium businesses that were just missing out on government schemes. Our action led to the protection of 500 jobs and created a further 270 jobs during the first national lockdown.
At the Committee I was asked my views on what additional powers we need to deliver, particularly fiscal devolution. I believe we could perform even better for the region and contribute more to the UK economy if we were given that resource.
At present, we are required to go cap in hand to central government whenever we need additional funding, which is often only granted on a short term basis. This is understandable; if a Combined Authority is not responsible with its funding, Central Government shoulders the responsibility and foots the bill. Devolution of fundraising powers from central government would provide stable, long term funding, allow us to plan for and deliver on strategic projects that would revolutionise our region and ensure we hold a stake in responsible management of our resources. It is both an opportunity and a responsibility.
It is my belief that because of the strength of the economy and value of land in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire as a whole, we can raise money to deliver on ambitious large scale infrastructure projects such as the Cambridgeshire Autonomous through the power of the Cambridge economy alone. Mechanisms such as Land Value Capture, Tax Incremental Funding, Devolved Taxation Powers and the long-term ring fencing of increased business rates revenues due to growth would allow us to raise billions of pounds in finance that could be invested in better public transport, employment-focussed education opportunities and affordable housing.
If we are to recover the significant economic growth lost to Covid-19 and burst past it, we will need to embrace innovation and deliver differently. The Government must look at the massive opportunities that we have in this country to transform how we deliver major infrastructure. While I speak of examples in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, this could be replicated across the UK. It is not only a different route of delivery, but a better route of delivery, on things that will improve people’s lives – which is, at the end of the day, the only reason I took on this job.