North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Devolution: opinion is shifting in the right direction

Today, for the second time in just over a week, Newcastle’s morning paper The Journal comes out in support of devolution for all seven North East councils, north and south of the Tyne. This  adds to mounting pressure on council leaders to get together, recreate the original North East Combined Authority (NECA) and do a deal with the government.

The Journal, like local newspapers generally, may no longer have the circulation it once had, but it is still much more influential than this humble website, and its backing for the position for which this site has argued since it was established a mere ten months ago is most welcome.

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has been making the case for a new, region-wide deal since the start of the year at least and has recently been joined by two of the region’s Labour MPs, Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) and Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South).

The Journal is correct to point out that there are questions over both County Durham, where the multi-party leadership is considering a go-it-alone county deal, and now Northumberland, where the Conservative leader, Councillor Glen Sanderson, has expressed a preference for the existing three-council North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA). Mayor Driscoll has said he would not do a new deal without Northumberland.

These developments together open up a number of possible combinations for the region. Even when only Durham’s continuing participation was in doubt, this website pointed on May 26 to four options for the county – to remain in NECA without a deal; to remain in NECA and do a deal; to reunite with the NTCA along with the other NECA members and do a new seven-council deal; or to go it alone and do a Durham County deal.

The statements of the past few days by Councillor Sanderson and especially by Mayor Driscoll may have been intended to reassure that Northumberland, unlike Durham, would not break away or be excluded from a new regional deal, but the effect, ironically, is to provoke speculation that this might indeed happen.

The possibilities thus expand to encompass a bewildering array of options including one or more new authorities combining the five Tyne & Wear councils with or without either Northumberland or Durham or both; or a continuing split along the Tyne, again with or without Northumberland, or Durham, or both; and all these possible combinations with or without a devolution deal.

One can only trust that the government would veto, or at least discourage, any of the more bizarre combinations.  

‘The bigger the better’ is the headline on today’s editorial in The Journal, and this website agrees: a seven-council combined authority with a devolution deal is the best option. Our only quibble is with the view that a five-council authority without Northumberland (and Durham) would make barely any more sense than the present set-up. One is tempted to say that almost anything would make more sense than the present set-up.

In fact, a five-council combined authority without Northumberland or Durham would effectively recreate the Tyne & Wear Metropolitan County Council that existed between 1974 and 1986 and was responsible for the two most important functions now carried out by mayoral combined authorities – transport and economic development. In the view of this author – who covered it as a journalist for almost its entire existence – Tyne & Wear County Council was a success, if for no other reason than that it built the Metro.  

So a five-council combined authority, responsible for the whole Tyne & Wear economy, would be viable. The addition of Durham and Northumberland would be preferable, but it would not be disastrous if they decided to go it alone. Northumberland might choose to build on its membership of the Borderlands Partnership with Cumbria, Carlisle, the Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway.

It was as long ago as April 26, 2018, that Councillor Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council, commenting on the NTCA devolution deal, told ChronicleLive: ‘This isn’t a good system of governance, it’s dysfunctional. The best you can say about this today is it’s unfinished business, at some stage some future government, whether it’s this government or another government will have to do something to pull this governance together. It’s dysfunctional to say the least.’

Councillor Gannon’s diagnosis was correct, but he was surely ducking his responsibility in trying to palm off the job of sorting out North East devolution on the government. As the man who led the south of Tyne councils is rejecting the 2016 devolution deal he is the one with the prime responsibility, along with Mayor Driscoll, who inherited the problem, for ‘pulling this governance together’.

But there is no sign that he is either willing or able to do so, in spite of being probably the most powerful politician south of the river. He is the only one of the four leaders who voted against devolution still to be in post and he chairs what is perhaps the North East’s most important regional body, the Joint Transport Committee.  

But if he thinks, after five years of devolution failure south of the river, that he should be taking a lead role to find a solution to the problem which he had such an important part in creating, there is no public sign of it.

For all this speculation about responsibility and possible solutions, however, the fact is the North East seems still a long way from ending its devolution woes. As The Journal says, ‘it’s clearly no easy task’. In fact, as far as one can see as a member of the public, for Councillor Gannon and the other leaders of the south of Tyne four, on whom the greatest responsibility falls – as their councils created the problem when they voted against devolution in 2016 – it is just too difficult.