North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Devolution to the south, devolution to the west, devolution in Scotland – but what about the North East?

While the North East Combined Authority (NECA) has been on holiday, the summer has seen councils in North Yorkshire and Cumbria take important steps towards devolution which, if they come to fruition, will leave the four councils south of the Tyne as an increasingly isolated undevolved island in a sea of devolution.

On July 21, the day after NECA held its most recent meeting, the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, decided that North Yorkshire County Council and the eight district councils in the area would be replaced by a new, single council, while City of York Council remains as it is. The decision is due to go before Parliament early next year, with the new unitary North Yorkshire Council coming into existence in April 2023.

At the same time Mr Jenrick approved plans for Cumbria which will see the creation of two unitary authorities, east and west, in place of the county council and six districts.

These step to unitary councils are ones which Northumberland and Durham both took back in 2009, enabling them to join the five Tyne and Wear councils in a combined authority in 2014 and a provisional devolution deal in 2015.

But a year later NECA refused to finalise the deal when the four councils south of the Tyne rejected it, leaving their three former partners north of the river to form the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and sign their own deal.

The rump NECA – Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham – appears to have stagnated ever since and has certainly been overlooked – and also significantly held back its former partners in the NTCA – by the government when handing out favours like a freeport and decentralised government departments in favour of neighbouring devolved Tees Valley.  

The supine condition into which NECA has fallen was maintained at its annual meeting, when all it could do on the devolution front was agree to watch and wait for the Levelling Up and Devolution White Paper due in the autumn, as I reported in my blog on June 9.

Meanwhile, the North Yorkshire councils are looking to the creation of their new unitary authority as a step to a devolution deal of their own.

‘The programme to create a single new council from the eight currently operating will be huge – but the aim is to align that programme with long-awaited devolution to kick-start sustainable economic recovery’, writes Councillor Carl Les, leader of North Yorkshire Council, on today’s ConservativeHome website.

North Yorkshire envisages a devolution deal including the new unitary council and the City of York which will bring £2.4bn investment into the local economy over 30 years.

Cumbria is also moving towards a possible devolution deal after its plans to replace six existing councils with two unitary authorities were also approved on July 21.  The Conservative MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson, told LancsLive at the time: ‘These new unitary authorities and a devolution deal for Cumbria create a huge opportunity for more local decisions to be taken by local people for the benefit of our county.’

With West Yorkshire’s devolution deal coming into effect in May this year, deals for North Yorkshire and Cumbria would leave the four rump NECA councils among only a few in the north of England without a deal. Hull and East Riding are talking about a deal, though Lancashire’s 15 councils are struggling to reach agreement.

The NECA chair reported at its most recent meeting on July 20 that during the pandemic, the LA7 local authorities (NECA and NTCA) had been discussing what is needed to help the region make a strong economic recovery.

‘At the current time, added Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland Council, ‘these discussions are ongoing with a view to forming joint proposals on what asks could potentially be made of government in terms of devolved funding and powers to further aid growth and recovery.’

Will these discussions, which needless to say appear to have been going on behind closed doors as usual, have led to any decisions about what ‘asks’ to make of the government by NECA’s next meeting on September 14? And will they have resulted in agreement to accept an elected mayor – a government condition for devolution which was one of the sticking points for the south of Tyne councils in 2016?

Will NECA have woken up by then to what it is missing by not agreeing a deal for the whole North East (Tees Valley aside)? If not, will the White Paper, when it is published, jog the councillors out of their torpor? And if not then, to quote the Prime Minister in another context, when?