North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Council Elections – Now is the time to engage the public

Few issues are of greater importance to the economic prosperity of the North East than devolution, and few occasions are more opportune to discuss it than local election time. 

Devolution in this region has become a game of realpolitik, and the people are losing. 

The Conservative government made it clear as long ago as 2014, with a speech by then Chancellor George Osborne that it was ready to give extra powers and funding to city regions, mainly in the north of England.

But there was a string attached: they had to accept a directly elected mayor – a so-called metro mayor – to be accountable to both local voters and to the government for the extra funding provided.

When West Yorkshire elects a metro mayor on 6 May there will be nine mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) in England, including all the former metropolitan counties except Tyne and Wear, which split in two when the seven North East councils could not agree to accept a devolution deal and split 4-3 along the line of the Tyne.

How disastrous this has turned out to be became crystal clear on 3 March, when Chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Budget gave nothing significant to the North East, while neighbouring Tees Valley, which did do a deal in 2016, got virtually all it wanted, including a freeport and a government economic campus. 

Unfair

So what are the North East’s leaders going to do about this except complain how unfair it is? 

Of course it’s unfair. We know that. The people of the North East should not be penalised just because their leaders made the wrong decision in 2016 while Tees Valley accepted a deal – and elected a Tory mayor to boot. 

And it is not just the people south of the Tyne in Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham who are suffering the consequences of their councillors’ rejection of devolution. Those north of the river in Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland, which have done their own deal, are being held back too by being inseparably bound into a single Tyneside economy. 

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll is attempting to negotiate a new deal which he hopes will entice the south of Tyne councils back in (News, Driscoll seeks ‘Zero Poverty, Zero Carbon’ deal). But it is a slow process, and from what we know the south of Tyne four are not buying it (News, Exclusive: South of Tyne councils ‘very unlikely’ to join new devolution deal). The  want ‘real devolution’ and a constitutional settlement for the North East. They could have a long wait.

The Labour Party is establishing a Constitutional Convention ‘to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level’ as Keir Starmer put it. There are three problems with such a Convention: 

  • It has a sense of long grass about it;
  • It is aimed mainly at solving Labour’s problems in Scotland;
  • It’s implementation depends on the election of a Labour government.

Meanwhile, are the North East’s leaders prepared to see devolved Tees Valley continue to be favoured while the northern part of the region goes on missing out? Simply asking the government for more, while refusing to do anything to meet the government’s conditions, isn’t a principled stand; it’s a head-in-the-sand failure to recognise reality.

Debating what an ideal form of devolution would look like, and campaigning for it, is fine. Rejecting what is on offer in the meantime is not. Besides, if the outcome is some form of federalism for England, it is quite likely to be rejected by the voters, as a regional assembly for the North East was in a 2004 referendum.

When the old seven-council North East Combined Authority formally split in 2018 the Gateshead Council leader, Martin Gannon, said: ‘At some stage some future government…will have to do something to pull this governance together. It’s dysfunctional to say the least’. 

Three years later we are still waiting, and the governance of the North East remains dysfunctional. Waiting for the government, or a future Labour government, to pull it together is a supine abdication of responsibility by local leaders. They are elected to lead, and that is what they should do. 

They should start now by engaging the public in debate about the future of the region. Then they should act. North of Tyne Combined Authority, to give credit where due, has had a Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Stakeholder Engagement Group (p. 17) since 2019. But the need for engagement lies particularly on the south of Tyne four, which is where a change of approach to devolution is required.  If they won’t engage the public, the public should engage with them. The local elections are a great opportunity to do that. Candidates who will not engage, or do not give a satisfactory answer, should be rejected, whatever their party.