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Top business leader says Plymouth's devolution rejection 'disappointing'

Wednesday, 22 November 2023 09:38

By Alison Stephenson, local democracy reporter

Plymouth businesses will miss out from political isolation, it's claimed

'Not in county's best interests' says chamber chief

Plymouth’s decision to pull out of a devolution deal for Devon has been described as “profoundly disappointing” by one of the county’s leading business figures.

Stuart Elford, CEO of the Devon and Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, said it was not in the best interest of the county as a whole to have a major economic centre like Plymouth out of the deal, and he hopes the city “will come into the fold” in future.

Plymouth’s Labour-run city council has declined to join forces with the Conservative-run Devon County and Torbay councils (although in the case of the latter there is no overall control following the defection last month of two Tories from the ruling group).

Plymouth City Council believes a new combined Devon-wide local authority would  a backward step, as the city would have less control over transport and no commitment of increased resources.

Mr Elford said he understood Plymouth’s reasons, but its businesses would be concerned about potential missed opportunities.

“It can’t be in the interests of wider Devon that is doesn’t have one of the major economic powerhouses within it.

“While the government made it clear there is no new money on the table, they have also made it clear that the devolution deal is the mechanism by which money will arrive.

“We believe as businesses who do not recognise boundaries and borders, that it can only be better to have a joined up strategic approach for the county, rather than a partial deal.”

But he says the chamber would work with whatever structure it had to get the best outcome for Devon and Plymouth.

Devolution would create a combined authority for the whole of Devon, except Plymouth, to deliver transport, skills and business support, and will  be subject to a public consultation.

Mr Elford said businesses would be keen to find out the potential benefits, what the amount of money would be in the future and what it would go to before they made their decision.

And he said the door wasn’t closed to Plymouth being involved. He hoped they would find a way to work together in the future: “The councils already work together on a lot of things and I am keen to see that continue.

“Hopefully it will result in Plymouth coming into the fold of a combined authority in due course.”

Plymouth council leader Tudor Evans (Lab, Ham) denied the decision to pull out was political and said the council could not accept the “unreasonable and unrealistic” deal on offer and he hoped it would reconsider.

“It is massively disappointing, given all the work that has taken place,” he said.

“We embarked on the road to a devolution deal for Devon as we support the principle of devolving more powers and control over resources from London to our region.

“But the final deal on the table would have been a step backwards given that 25 years ago Plymouth became a unitary authority and took back responsibility for key areas such as education and transport.

“The government wasn’t promising any money either. If it works for Devon and Torbay that is fine and we wish them well, but it wasn’t good enough for Plymouth.”

Leader of the council’s Conservative group Cllr Andy Lugger (Southway) said he and Cllr Evans agreed on the point of devolution: “Certainly losing transport is a red line and we all accept that,” he said at this week’s full council meeting.

Meanwhile the council has welcomed news that it will receive Levelling Up funding of £20 million to accelerate the city’s Freeport and fund marine and waterfront businesses.

Cllr Evans said: “We have an extraordinary waterfront. We have some exciting ideas to help people in Plymouth prosper and want to create opportunities for young people to learn skills that will see them with great jobs in the blue economy. The projects we have put forward will help make this happen.”

The Plymouth and South West Devon Freeport is projected to bring more than £300 million of investment to the area, wiht an estimated 3,500 new jobs across Plymouth and South Hams.

Freeports offer various tax and customs reliefs, simplified import and export procedures and enhanced trade promotion.

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