This website has been arguing since it was established in January 2021 for the North East’s seven councils (the LA7) to reunite and do a devolution deal with the government in order to get the most of whatever funding is made available for levelling up.
Today it is no longer alone in making that case. The Journal, Newcastle’s morning paper, in its editorial today, also argues for an LA7 deal: ‘We are punching below our weight. And we need to fix that’, it says.
The Journal’s support for devolution, while welcome, has been prompted by a most unwelcome interview given by Councillor Glen Sanderson, leader of Northumberland County Council, to the Local Democracy Reporting Service’s (LRDC’s) Daniel Holland, also in The Journal.
As far as Councillor Sanderson is concerned the present arrangements between the LA7 are working very well without a formal partnership and he doesn’t want to be forced into a devolution deal by promises of new funding.
He told Holland: ‘So far as I am concerned we have a long way to go before we could consider becoming part of a combined authority with all the councils along with a mayor’.
So the £500m or £600m (depending on who you are listening to) from the £4.2bn City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS) that is said to be sitting on the table waiting for the North East to pick up, if only it will do a deal, is apparently comparatively unimportant in Councillor Sanderson’s view.
That is not to mention all the other funding and favours that the North East has seen lavished on Tees Valley, which does have a devolution deal, this year.
Councillor Sanderson’s interview is published just three days after he sat in the council chamber at Gateshead Civic Centre and approved a bid of £804m to the government to improve the region’s bus services. Failure to get the money it wants will have at least some of the following consequences:
NO new bus stations at Alnwick, Durham, Bishop Auckland and in Newcastle city centre;
NO new bus access to North Shields Fish Quay and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP), phase 1 of which was announced this week to be fully let;
NO more park-and-ride sites;
NO lower, simplified fares and expanded routes and timetables;
NO special deals for those aged under 19;
NO care leavers’ concession;
NO wheelchair users’ guarantee;
NO superbus routes and new interurban expresses running up to every five minutes;
NO improved rural bus services tailored to the specific requirements of the communities they serve.
At best, tough choices would have to be made between these highly desirable aims, which have been dangled before the public but seem all too likely to be snatched away again.
At worst, if the North East Joint Transport Committee does not get at least £123m of the £804m. it is asking for, it may prove impossible to maintain bus services even at their present level.
Strictly speaking, funding for the bus plan is not dependent on an LA7 devolution deal, but as we have consistently seen in the different treatment handed out to the North East and the city regions with devolution deals, notably Tees Valley, in practice not having a deal is a huge drawback.
No deal will greatly reduce the region’s chances of getting the funding it wants for ambitious projects in addition to the bus plan. The North East Transport Plan calls for £6.8bn by 2035. The Northumberland Line linking Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to the Tyne and Wear Metro is going ahead, but only today the Northern Echo reports that the government has rejected another element of the Transport Plan, the reopening of the Leamside Line linking Tursdale near Ferryhill in County Durham to the Metro at Pelaw , on the grounds that the £600m cost is prohibitive.
Councillor Sanderson’s misplaced reluctance to do an LA7 deal is yet another complicating factor on the road to North East devolution, already complicated by Durham County Council’s exploration of the possibility of doing a go-it-alone deal, and apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of other council leaders.
Leaders of Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland councils are waiting passively for the Levelling Up White Paper due by the year’s end, while the Newcastle City Council leader told the LDRC that he is ‘open minded’ about a new deal but what he really wants is the government to hand over the CRSTS cash without waiting for a regional mayor to be in place.
Only the North Tyneside borough mayor displays any sense of urgency and realism: ‘If we continue to miss out on funding, especially for essential infrastructure upgrades like transport, the region could be left behind quickly’, she told the LRDC. ‘It is time we explore joint working again and move as one region which can have a bigger impact’.
When the current model of devolution was launched by then Chancellor George Osborne in 2015 he made clear the reason he wanted an elected mayor was to have someone to be accountable to both ministers and voters for the powers and funding devolved. The LA7 is the antithesis of that model. It meets in private and publishes no agendas, reports or minutes.
The fact that it is an informal group should not fool the people into thinking it is not important. In the local government of the North East it is in behind-closed-doors meetings such as these that important decisions are often taken, with the public meetings that follow acting as mere rubber stamps.
The government is not deceived and nor should the people be. They should press for an LA7 devolution deal, both to improve the chances of more funding for the North East and to put into office a properly accountable mayor who they can identify as responsible for the region’s progress and just as easily throw out again if they are not satisfied.