Avoiding The Elephant In The Room

Two of the North East’s leaders, both members of the labour and trade union movement, had some fair comments to make this week on Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget of 3 March. But both also avoided mentioning what is for them the awkward elephant in the room. 

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll statement in his column in The Journal (8 March 2021, p. 19), acknowledged that it was necessary to work with all partners, including the government. He acknowledged, too, the importance of combined authorities, including mayoral combined authorities (MCAs)– the model that was rejected by his Labour colleagues south of the river in 2016. 

‘Mayoral Combined Authorities are already here. Already set up. Already fully functional and delivering thousands of real jobs’, he wrote. ‘But you wouldn’t know that from the Chancellor’s speech’. 

Oh yes, you would! It was crystal clear from the Chancellor’s speech that in securing a freeport, the government’s northern economic campus and other goodies, Tees Valley was reaping the rewards of having a fully functional MCA. And it did not take a genius to realise that the reason the North East was not similarly rewarded was that it does not have a fully functional MCA. 

With all due respect to Mayor Driscoll, and through no fault of his, it only has half a fully functioning MCA. The other half of what should be a seven-council North East Combined Authority (NECA) is languishing south of the Tyne, without a devolution deal, a devolution grant, a mayor or any Budget favours. 

The mayor complained in his column says that the government has ignored a plan by the seven councils (so-called LA7) to create 55,000 well-paid, high-tech, green jobs. But the LA7 is an informal group that meets wholly in private and publishes no agendas, reports or minutes. If it is publicly accountable to anyone, it is not clear who. 

It is not surprising that the government would not hand over taxpayers’ resources to such a nebulous body. 

The other labour movement leader who had a comment to make in a column in The Journal was Beth Farhat, regional secretary of the TUC. 

She was quite correct to write in her column in The Journal (8 March, 2021, p 15)that: ‘We saw long overdue investment in areas of the North East; however most of it seems to have been confined to electorally advantageous areas of the region where a slew of recent Labour/Conservative marginals are currently located.’   

Of course it was. That is why the Chancellor’s Budget speech on the Treasury website has the section in which the Chancellor praised Tees Valley’s Tory mayor Ben Houchen removed as being ‘political content’. 

The North East’s leaders can see that levelling up is to a large extent politically driven and that accepting a devolution deal is part of the price to be paid until, they hope, a better form of devolution comes along, if it ever does. Local politicians on the Tees and north of the Tyne recognise that and have come to terms with it. Those between the two rivers have not and are holding themselves and their North of Tyne colleagues back. 

This is the elephant in the room that Driscoll and Farhat fail to mention – the continuing failure of the LA7 to get together, reconstitute a NECA7 and do a devolution deal covering the whole area. 

Beth Farhat comments: ‘Voters are smarter than politicians in London give them credit for’. If they are they will kick out politicians who refuse to do a devolution deal and replace them with others who will. Council elections on 6 May in County Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland would be a good time and place to start.