North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Budget Joy On The Tees, Fog On The Tyne

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen must be jumping for joy today after getting all he had wanted and more in the Budget. But for the North East leaders who refused to do a devolution deal with the government back in 2016, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s statement was a hard political lesson. 

For Tees Valley, the Chancellor announced: a freeport on the Tees; new port infrastructure for offshore wind projects; and a government economic campus at Darlington; town deals for Middlesbrough and Thornaby; and £5m for vaccine development at the Centre for Process Innovation in Darlington. 

These will not level up the Tees Valley overnight, but they will boost its morale, and encourage private investors to look to the area. 

What is more, the Chancellor devoted part of his speech to painting a glowing picture of Tees Valley as an economic exemplar: ‘That is the future economy of this country’, he said. To cap a great afternoon for Mayor Houchen, the Chancellor praised him personally, by name in his Budget statement. 

All this will give massive support to Houchen’s chances of re-election in May. 

For the North East, however, there was nothing – not even for the North of Tyne Combined Authority that split from its south of Tyne neighbours after they voted against a devolution deal in 2016, formed its own combined authority and elected its own mayor. 

The North East’s bid for a freeport on the Tyne and at Sunderland and Blyth was rejected, as was Newcastle’s bid to host the government economic campus. These outcomes were described by Lucy Winskell, chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, as a ‘bitter disappointment’. 

She added: ‘Our focus is now on understanding what levels of investment the government is prepared to make in the North East so we can achieve our joint ambitions of creating more and better jobs, levelling up, and further unlocking our industrial potential to allow us to play our part in contributing to UK plc.’ 

The government’s answer is likely to be ‘not very much’ until the North East can get its act together, re-constitute a combined authority covering all seven councils, do a devolution deal and elect a mayor.