Reg Little meets Nick Clegg and attempts to find out more about the snappily-titled Oxford & Oxfordshire City Deal

At the home of the Diamond synchrotron the Deputy Prime Minister was rejecting the very idea that valuable political credit had been stolen by Cabinet colleague George Osborne.

Beaming with goodwill, Nick Clegg was happy to count the Chancellor, along with just about everyone who matters in Oxfordshire, among the people responsible for the happy delivery of the Oxford & Oxfordshire City Deal, which he had arrived at Harwell to sign.

Sure, two days earlier Mr Osborne had gone to Begbroke Science Park to reveal the deal would include a £67m boost to Oxfordshire’s science sector. However, with the package promising a staggering £1.2bn of investment in the county, it seems there is more than enough glory to share around.

For with local councils, both Oxford universities, local business and the Treasury all playing a part, the cash will be going into almost every project Oxfordshire has craved — whether it is improving the A34 or a new rail route to London, new homes or the nurturing of small bioscience companies.

The City Deal is very much the Deputy Prime Minister’s baby. Beset at Westminster with Lib Dem sex scandals (without the sex) and a furore sparked by a Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate tweeting a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, it must have been pleasing to see it up and running in Oxfordshire.

As well as bring 50,400 new jobs and hundreds of apprenticeships, the City Deal also promises freedom, declared Mr Clegg. “Today,” he said, “we are signing over real power from Whitehall to Oxford, giving the people who know Oxford best an opportunity to decide how to invest in the region.”

It was a chance for local leaders to rummage around Whitehall’s cupboard no less and “tell us what powers they want to take”. Cynics, he suggested, need only speak to the county council or the university vice-chancellors who view it “as a collaboration between the private and public sector without precedent”.

Or we can just wait and see.

“At the end of the day the proof will be in the eating of the pudding. If it creates 19,000 new jobs, with 31,000 in construction, accelerates the construction of 7,000 more homes and deals with traffic bottlenecks that prevent people from getting to work easily, then it will have worked.

“We should be able to move quickly. There is no reason in the months ahead that we should not see an acceleration with the apprenticeships and housebuilding, and move forward with some of the transport elements of the package.”

Too good to be true? Well that depends, who you are expecting to foot the bill.

“It is not about central government giving a great cheque,” said the Deputy Prime Minister solemnly. “We have never pretended it is. The whole financing of City Deals is a combination of private and public money. We have added a bit, £50m or so, and it will unlock investment in the private sector.”

Before Mr Clegg’s arrival, it had already become evident that the £1.2bn figure ultimately included millions from private investment and schemes that have already secured funding, such as the redevelopment of Oxford’s railway station the new Oxford-to-Marylebone line, along with housing schemes proposed at Barton Park and Oxpens.

The Deputy Prime Minister happily took on the task of clarifying the situation.

“It is about giving local authorities and local communities more power to do things for themselves with money that is already there. We are talking about using money that is available much more intelligently.

“One of the things I have learnt is that a huge amount of central government money is wasted by tying local government in knots. We all have to deliver more for less. At the end of the day City Deals embodies less money but more freedom.”

Less money?

“In general terms,” the Deputy Prime Minister quickly added, insisting that money for A34 improvements and a new link road from the A40 to A44 to relieve congestion is all safely in place.

“I would not have signed the City Deal if it was just a long wish list. It is all accounted for. The money is there to deliver what is in the City Deal. It is a set of carefully agreed and negotiated commitments that are going to happen.”

What is not included, he readily admits, is a hefty £160m to save Oxford from future flooding. The latest floods have strengthened calls from all sides of the political divide for the Western Conveyance Channel — a new waterway west of the city to channel flood water away from homes — to be built.

But the message from the top is that Oxford will just have to fight for funding with numerous other flood-hit areas.

“I totally understand and appreciate the strength of feeling,” Mr Clegg told me. “If you live in a home that is flooded repeatedly with property and objects of value damaged, with time off work, it is a harrowing experience.

“But I do not come here brandishing a magic wand. It would be unfair to pretend otherwise. Almost every community in the country is worried about how they can make areas more resilient to the threat of flooding. The debate you are having in Oxford about the channel can be reproduced hundreds of times around the country.”

The Lib Dem leader urged the city to press ahead with its case for the Western Conveyance Project, while also continuing to examine other measures.

But he warned: “As a government we have to look at things as a whole. The responsible thing for us to do as a government is to step back and look at all these needs. There is not an infinite amount of money and we have to decide which are the most cost-effective priorities at a time like this.”

Last month it was reported that Mr Clegg had called on the Prime Minister to be “honest and up front” about the Government’s plans to build two new garden cities — one supposedly somewhere in Oxfordshire. A report into the viability of building large new settlements was said to have been completed — but was still awaiting publication by the Government.

But Mr Clegg was happy to pour cold water on suggestions that there were secret plots to build a new garden city in Oxfordshire’s countryside, while not disguising his hope of recapturing the spirit that saw the building of Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City.

But he added: “It is not my job to point a long finger and say where a garden city should go. That has to be generated by local demand and local proposals backed by the private sector. The Government needs to produce a prospectus setting out criteria, then invite local areas to come forward.”

It could nevertheless be a General Election issue in Oxfordshire, along perhaps with tuition fees if the county’s student population has anything to do with it.

He remains, “sorry, so sorry” (as the famous Clegg spoof video goes) about increasing tuition fees, having promised to scrap them during the last election.

“I have apologised and apologised to music, no less, for the fact that we made a commitment as a party that we could not keep.”

But these days he is ready too to go on the offensive about myths and misinformation. “All the predictions that no one would go to university have been confounded.”

He reels out a lengthy list of those who will never have to pay a penny, if by dint of never earning enough.

But will the abolition of tuition fees figure in the next manifesto? “Once bitten, twice shy,” he replies, in what was surely the first ‘no deal’ on ‘City Deal Day’.