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Devolution for East Anglia ‘still an option’ says minister

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 October 2018 | UPDATED: 07:09 02 October 2018

The East Anglia flag flying at County Hall in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The East Anglia flag flying at County Hall in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Archant

A Treasury minister has outlined the positives of devolution for East Anglia.

Speaking to this newspaper at Conservative party conference, Robert Jenrick said having elected mayors in other regions of the UK had been “positive” and added that the government would welcome new proposals from the East.

“We are one year on from the election of the first mayors in cities like Birmingham, Manchester and on Teeside,” the exchequer secretary to the Treasury said.

“I think to greater or lesser extents each of them have helped to create an economic strategy for their areas, to decide what the strategic priorities are for infrastructure, skills and embracing new technologies for skills.

“And they have had the opportunity to speak to government with a single, influential voice.”

And he said the East could replicate the success Teeside’s mayor Ben Houchen has enjoyed with major investment in his area.

“Ben is someone who I now speak to at the Treasury on an almost weekly basis,” he added.

“We are working very closely with him to give him extra powers to attract inward investment.

“I think that is an example where a capable mayor can make a real difference locally and with central government.

“My experience as a minister has made me feel that mayors are a very good idea and we are very open for other areas to take advantage of them.

“Of course the East of England considered it in the past.

“We have said that we will consider any regions ideas of course but we are not going to impose devolution deals on parts of the country that do not want them.

“So it does require the MPs, councils and communities and the business community to come together with one voice and says they think this is the best way to drive that area forward.”

In 2016 devolution for the East ended in stalemate with disagreements over whether it was the best route for the region.

But Mr Jenrick said that the opportunity for East Anglia to elect a mayor and receive more devolved powers remained on the table.

“There is a strong East Anglian identity and a lot of common challenges.

“If local people want it then we stand ready to engage with them constructively,” he added.

Meanwhile, today at conference home secretary Sajid Javid will launch a new drive to tackle drugs.

He will say: “I am committed to ending the scourge of violent crime and will combat this issue using all the tools at the government’s disposal.

“We will not only deal with crime when it happens but will go further and strengthen our ability to target and prevent the root causes of criminal behaviour from finding the evidence, ensuring our services are working together and providing the right resources to the right places.”

But the big speech of the day will not take place in the conference hall but at a fringe event where Brexit rebel Boris Johnson will set out his proposals for an alternative to the prime minister’s Chequers plan.

Although the event is expected to be packed with members, so far the rank and file have not taken kindly to Mr Johnson’s recent interventions on how Britain should leave the EU.

One delegate from Suffolk said: “I think it is time for this party to come together and I am not sure Boris is helping on that front.”

Meanwhile chancellor Philip Hammond has threatened internet giants with a new digital services tax to ensure they pay their fair share.

In his keynote speech Mr Hammond said that, with international talks stalling, Britain was ready to go it alone with a levy on the tech companies.

The measure formed part of a programme to “regenerate capitalism” which the chancellor said was needed to tackle the challenges of the modern world and renew the appeal of the free market to a new generation.

“The best way to tax international companies is through international agreement,” Mr Hammond said.

“But the time for talking is coming to an end and the stalling has to stop.

“If we cannot reach agreement, the UK will go it alone with a Digital Services Tax of its own.”

Mr Hammond acknowledged that many voters feel “left behind” by economic change and fear they will fall further behind as new technologies like artificial intelligence and driverless cars make their jobs obsolete.

He warned that Tories must persuade people that the market system can work for them.

CONFERENCE WHISPER

The Hyatt hotel bar is the place to be seen at Conservative conference in Birmingham.

Once the speeches are over the champagne corks pop and members, politicians and journalists rub shoulders and chew the fat.

But the best thing about this year’s conference hotel bar is not the Moet but that the main staircase to the rooms is bang in the middle of the crowd.

So any minister trying to keep a low profile has no chance.

I even managed to grab a quick word with health secretary and MP for West Suffolk Matt Hancock as he dashed for the stairs.

“What is in your speech Matt?” I asked hopefully. “Oh ... lots of national things,” he replied understandably keeping it vague.

Watching on another MP said: “Ministers hate this hotel. Last time one who had been rather naughty tried to flee in a hat and dark glasses.” She wouldn’t elaborate on who.

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