North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Another Month, Another Plan…

…and another multi-billion funding plea from North East councillors to the government. 

This time it is the North East Joint Transport Committee (NEJTC), which will be recommended next week to sign off a North East Transport Plan costing £6.8bn (as a starter) by 2035, for which it will need massive government funding. 

This is the Joint Committee that only exists because the seven councils that sit on it could not agree to do a devolution deal with the government in 2016 and instead split their combined authority into two, north and south of the Tyne. 

It represents the same seven councils, the so-called LA7, which on 9 February asked the government for £1bn-plus for Covid recovery. 

The LA7 who are not formally constituted, meet in private and publish no agendas, reports or minutes. 

The same seven who sit on the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, which has put a £2.8bn Covid recovery plan to the government. 

And the three of the seven who are talking to the government, via North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll, in the hope of getting a new £500m zero-poverty, zero-carbon deal, in which he hopes the other four will join in (see News: ‘North of Tyne seeks zero-poverty, zero carbon’ devolution deal).

‘Well-developed governance’

This fragmented governance notwithstanding, the Transport Plan states that: ‘’The North East region has a well-developed governance structure and associated assurance process in place to agree and deliver transport policies, strategies and investment opportunities.’ 

Whether the government agrees will be seen when it responds to the Joint Committee’s funding plea. The precedent set by the Budget on 3 March does not suggest that ministers look favourably on the North East’s failure so far to agree a devolution deal covering all seven councils. 

On top of the £6.8bn by 2035, the Joint Committee wants a government commitment to investment across the wider north of England including upgrades to the East Coast Main Line and to trunk roads managed by Highways England; continued funding for local transport; more powers to provide for integrated management of the local transport network; and sustained revenue funding to support public services. 

According to Councillor Martin Gannon, chair of the Joint Committee, this in no more than the North East deserves: ‘Our schemes are ambitious and are so far worth £6.8 billion, an amount which will grow as further schemes are developed over the lifetime of the Plan. We believe this to be a fair share of national transport funding which should be allocated to our region from central government to 2021-2035’. 

That is as may be. Research IPPR North in 2019 suggested that planned government spend on transport in London was £3,636 per person, over seven times more than the £519 per head in the North East. It does nt necessarily mean the region will get more in future, though party political considerations probably mean it wlll to some extent.

To be fair to the committee, whatever doubts there may about its likely success in winning the funding it wants, partly as a result of the position local councils have put themselves in, it is obliged under the Transport Act 2000 to produce a plan. It has consulted widely, and there is nothing obviously wrong with the end result. It has got the support of organisations from the North East England Chamber of Commerce to Living Streets and Sustrans. 

According to Councillor Gannon ‘[The Plan] will help to protect our environment by providing attractive carbon-neutral sustainable transport for people across the North East. Our plans will also significantly fuel regional economic growth which will help to boost job creation’. 

What to look out for

For those interested in monitoring the Plan, there are some short-term projects (i.e. 2021-2025) to look out for. One easily visible example is station and frequency improvements on the Durham Coast and Tyne Valley rail lines. The Plan also contains key performance indicators (KPIs) including improvements in network performance, accessibility, road safety and environment-related factors. 

Unfortunately, no specific targets are set. The Plan explains: ‘Funding has yet to be guaranteed from government and other sources for the schemes which will deliver improved performance in the KPIs. Once funding is received, we will consider what targets can be introduced for these measures’. It is not a good omen. 

Nevertheless, the progress of projects identified in the Plan for early implementation will be one useful measure of how committed the government is to the levelling-up agenda and to what extent it views the divided North East as a worthwhile partner. No one can say how much of the funding the North East wants it will actually receive, but reconstituting a single combined authority, re-uniting the Tyneside economy and doing a devolution deal would certainly improve its chances and show that councils too are willing to collaborate in the levelling-up agenda.