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District and borough councils to be ‘essential’ to potential East Midlands devolution deal

Council leaders negotiating for a potential mayor and combined authority covering Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire have stressed district and borough councils are “essential” to the process.

Upper-tier authorities are negotiating with the Government for a devolution agreement that could see a large combined council covering both counties, Nottingham and Derby.

It comes as part of the Government’s push for further decentralisation of powers and funding from Whitehall, included within the ‘Levelling Up’ white paper published last month.

Details within the paper confirm that, to get the biggest rewards from devolution, areas must set up a combined authority and have a directly elected mayor.

Benefits from the scheme could include improving a raft of services like healthcare, transport, planning and education, with decisions on how to spend large funding pots made at a local level rather than in London.

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But the white paper also says the potential combined authority may only include representatives from upper-tier councils. In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, this is the city and county councils.

District and borough councils, it adds, would act as “non-constituent” members and may have no decision-making abilities on major projects. The new authority would, however, be expected to “work closely” with the councils.

The details have led to concern from opposition councillors and leaders of some of Nottinghamshire’s lower-tier authorities, with some previously fearing the project could “essentially turn them into parish councils”.

It also led to an amendment lodged by Councillor Jason Zadrozny (Ash Ind), leader of Ashfield District Council, who called for the county council to recognise “in writing” the role of district and borough councils in this process.

Cllr Zadrozny, who leads the Independent Alliance at County Hall, put forward the amendment during a debate on devolution in the council’s policy committee on Thursday (March 24).

Speaking in the meeting, he said: “Whatever the future of local government might be, if it brings more money in, more responsibilities and benefits our county then I will support it.

“But my firm belief is decisions are best made by people who are closest to the people they affect.

“[Our amendment] recognises the importance of our colleagues, and it is our strategic aim to work closely with districts and boroughs because they bring a lot to the table.

“We literally want to ensure [they] are sat at the table throughout this process, not just for a discussion but formally.”

Labour also supported calls to further enhance the role of district and borough councils in the devolution deal.

Cllr Jim Creamer (Lab), who represents Carlton West, said: “Everybody agrees that the districts and the county work together well and they are really crucial on the ground.

“I don’t see any big problem by formally recognising how important our partners are. It would be politics with a small ‘p’ to recognise their importance at this stage.”

Cllr Zadrozny’s amendment came as part of the county council’s latest devolution report, which confirmed discussions are under way between city and county leaders to explore the mayoral combined authority option.

It also recommended councillors endorse the “continuing inclusion” of district and borough authorities in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire during ongoing discussions about devolution.

However, Cllr Zadrozny’s motion asked the council to go further, calling for councillors to ensure district and borough councils “play a key and formally recognised role in any future combined authority”.

The amendment was voted down, but the Conservative administration did agree to reword the recommendation to “recognise the importance of and endorse the inclusion of” lower-tier councils in future devolution proposals.

Cllr Bruce Laughton (Con), who chaired the meeting in the absence of council leader Ben Bradley, said: “This is not about backtracking on districts and boroughs, they are essential building blocks in this process.

“Their expertise on planning, their ability to operate in that environment, means it is essential they are valued partners within the process.”

And Anthony May, the council’s chief executive, confirmed both upper-tier leaders and the Government have committed in meetings to set up a devolution framework to “suit everybody”.

He added: “All upper-tier leaders [have given] a very strong commitment to the inclusion of district and borough councils, not just in discussions, but in finding a model of governance to suit the circumstances.”

Conversations between the Government and leaders will continue throughout this year to determine the next steps for devolution.

No agreement is in place on what the deal will look like, with Mr May confirming leaders are “seeking consensus” across a politically-diverse set of 19 different councils.

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