Devolution at last for the North East, if…

North East devolution, which this website has been arguing for since it was established in January 2021, may be on its way at last.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), writing in ChronicleLive, reports that the government may propose a deal to North East council leaders by the summer, with an interim mayor to be in place next year and a mayoral election in May 2024.

The new mayoral combined authority (MCA) would cover the six councils in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear (the LA6) with Durham pursuing its own go-it along county deal.

It would end the damaging rift that split the former North East Combined Authority (NECA) when its then seven members voted 4-3 to reject a previous devolution deal in 2016.

That split led to the three councils of Northumberland, Newcastle and North Tyneside breaking away to form their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), doing their own deal and electing their own mayor, Jamie Driscoll, in 2019.

The three councils in Tyne & Wear South – Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – as well as County Durham remain for the moment in a rump NECA.

Gateshead Council leader Councillor Martin Gannon, who led the four south-of-the-river councils in rejecting the previous deal, told the LDRS that ‘really positive’ talks had been held with levelling up minister Neil O’Brien in March and that discussions were now ongoing between senior council officers and Whitehall civil servants to work out the details.

A new deal could bring the North East new funding and powers, particularly over transport and adult education and skills.

It could bring around £1bn to the region for investment, including £600m from the government’s City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS), which could be used, for example, for the reopening of the Leamside rail line linking Ferryhill and other statins in County Durham to the Metro at Pelaw.

It could also bring a grant of perhaps £10m a year for 30 years, on top of the £20m already going to the NTCA, enabling the new MCA to create a capital investment fund of several hundred millions.

However, the events surrounding the region’s last attempt at devolution are a reminder of what can go wrong when the North East’s fractious politicians get together. All seven members of NECA signed a provisional deal in October 2015, but it broke down in constant squabbling over the next 11 months before being rejected in September 2016.

Councillor Gannon’s comments to the LDRS were highly conditional: ‘If the government is serious about levelling up, and if they are going to work with us in a genuine partnership that will economically enhance the North East, then we want to work together to make that happen.’

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland Council, told the LDRS: ‘If the offer is not right then we won’t accept it.’

The fact that council leaders are now speaking publicly at all about devolution is a step forward from their virtual silence and invisibility discussed here on May 13. They should now do more to engage the public in developing and implementing a devolution agreement in ways suggested by the Local Government Association and outlined here in the same piece on May 13.