It’s been a grim few weeks... But Norfolk has lots of potential

PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 January 2018

Parts of the Norwich Northern Distributor Road are open to traffic. 

Parts of the Norwich Northern Distributor Road are open to traffic. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

January is proving to be rather bleak. Norwich has lost jobs and there remain many more under threat across the county.

Brandon Lewis has praised the efforts of rthe LEPBrandon Lewis has praised the efforts of rthe LEP

In the wake of the devastating news that both Britvic and Unilever were shutting up shop at the Carrow Works site whispers of “decline” began to creep into conversations.

And that is a very real concern.

At the same time we hear the news of the billions being thrown at projects elsewhere in the UK: The Northern Powerhouse, Crossrail, HS2. All projects that will provide opportunities and growth.

And yet for as long as 30 years, and probably longer, Long Stratton has been crying out for a bypass. Is the East being ignored when it comes to dishing out cash for the types of projects that make an area more attractive to businesses?

Chloe Smith outside the Britvic and Unilever factory site. Photo: Chloe SmithChloe Smith outside the Britvic and Unilever factory site. Photo: Chloe Smith

Not entirely, but before we look at the positives let’s list some of the bad news.

Norwich is hard to get to. Britvic stated in confidential documents seen by this paper that the road links from Norwich to the M1 and beyond were a factor in the company looking to relocate. And anyone who tried to drive on the A11 or A140 on Thursday morning after the high winds would have been left in no doubt that any disruption at all causes long tailbacks.

London is close enough to remain a big pull. Too many of our best and brightest go to London. There is a brain drain to the capital which is undoubtedly difficult to tackle.

And Norfolk’s internet connectivity is lacking. In some areas painfully so.

MPs, local government leaders and many others have been talking about these issues for many years. But What exactly has been done? Here in the middle of a punishing January it is tempting to say “not enough”.

But before we get too depressed it is worth noting how far Norfolk has come.

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith is keen that even after the loss of more than 350 roles at Carrow Works people do not focus on the negatives.

“I think it is a misconception to say Norfolk has missed out,” she said. “My job as a constituency MP has been dedicated to action to ensure Norfolk is gaining access to investment such as the duelling of the A11 which was one of the earliest actions of this government. And the £1.4bn investment in the rail network which is something I’ve been responsible for as well as the ongoing work to finish the Northern Distributor Road. Those things are already bringing jobs to our city and the county and will continue to in the future.

“Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking Norfolk is down and out. As the chamber of commerce rightly says Norfolk is a great place to start and run a business. STM Packaging in my constituency is a great example of a growing business. But there are many others as well.

“On top of that if you look at the employment figures you actually see that the number of people unemployed is down year on year. There are exciting opportunities in Norfolk.

“But I remain ambitious for my city and my county. We live in a fantastic place but there is much more we can do make sure more opportunities come to us.

“My next steps will be to work with everyone I can to see what we can do in the wake of the recent job losses. But also to look at the future industries around our city more generally. For example I am doing a series of meetings with different sectors asking them about what they need from Brexit. How we can ensure they can continue to grow and be providing exciting opportunities for the people who might today be at secondary school but soon will be looking for work.”

Ms Smith is right. Norfolk is a great place with far more going for it than against it. And there is little reason not to be optimistic.

But the advances that have been made – those infrastructure projects that have got the green light – are not enough. Norfolk needs to remain ambitious and our MPs and leaders must not rest on their laurels.

The progress Cambridge has made to grow its science and technology industries should provide inspiration to the potential Norwich possesses. Now is the time to push harder than ever for investment from the traditional sectors as well as emerging ones.

Brexit – whether you voted to leave or remain – will undoubtedly provide disruptive. But that does not have to necessarily be bad for Norfolk.

Britain is changing. And fast. Our leaders need to act.

What impact would a shake up of the way Norfolk is governed have on investment?

The row over whether the current structure of district councils and a country council is sustainable rumbles on amid cuts to services and controversial pay hikes for councillors.

And those arguments have intensified since chancellor Philip Hammond made it very clear in his autumn Budget that those regions that did take the plunge by voting for a mayor with devolved powers would be rewarded.

Mr Hammond’s £1.7bn Transforming Cities Fund aims to “target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

Manchester bagged £250m and even Tees Valley was awarded £59m. There is some money left for other cities who have not got mayors though – but they will have to bid for it. Leeds, a city three times the size of Norwich, is among those thought to be preparing a bid for cash.

Is it time to think again about a shake-up? Some kind of devolution that allows Norfolk to unlock some of the government cash other regions are enjoying? Union UNISON has already come out in support of a bespoke devolution model for the region. Jonathan Dunning, branch secretary at Norfolk County Council, believes devo-lite, rather than reorganisation, could yet provide a solution to the local government funding problems.

He said a model which did not insist on a mayor but granted powers and money through existing council structures could work. And the County Councils Network – the body that represents England’s 37 county council and unitary authorities – has already been pushing for this to be an option.

The original deal put jointly to Suffolk and Norfolk would have seen the counties getting £750m over 30 years to spend on infrastructure and a further £130m towards housing.

New Conservative Party chairman, and Great Yarmouth MP, Brandon Lewis said he was disappointed Norfolk decided against a mayor but argued the Local Enterprise Partnership was doing great work.

“It is a shame that Norfolk didn’t take the step to go after some of the devolved opportunities,” he said. “But we are blessed at having a great LEP. We have got one of the best in the country. The work they do is phenomenal.”

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