North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Double trouble for North East devolution plans

County Durham Labour Party has launched a public consultation into plans for a new devolution deal for the county. It means hopes that the North East could get a new devolution deal soon – or even at all – are facing hurdles on two fronts.

For at the same time Northumberland County Council’s leader has warned that ‘the wheels have fallen off’ the region’s devolution plans, according to a report by the Local Democracy Reporting Service in ChronicleLive.

Durham Labour is asking people in the county whether they would prefer to see County Durham have a county deal in which the government hands Durham its own unique devolution deal or a North East deal with one mayor covering everything from the Scottish Border to the Yorkshire Dales.

The online consultation document makes clear that Durham Labour prefers a county deal: ‘Labour believes that patch is too big, and the council must secure a deal that puts County Durham people first by accepting the government’s previous offer for a separate deal handing new powers and funding exclusively to County Durham.

‘This would give Durham control of outstanding and future priorities, enabling it to make quick, impactful decisions in vital key areas, such as buses and other public transport, creating jobs, tackling the cost-of-living crisis, housing and infrastructure.’

The consultation document goes on to criticise leaders of the coalition controlling the county council for not holding a public consultation: ‘Labour believes we will receive more investment and greater say on how it is spent by creating our own devolution deal for the county, but to do so it’s essential that this reflects the opinion of what the people of County Durham want – something the Coalition wants to deny you!’

Durham County Council leader Councillor Amanda Hopgood told the Northern Echo that she expected devolution talks to start within a coupe of weeks following the break for national mourning; the council would explore all options. She said Labour’s concern was ‘a bit rich and far too late’.

Meanwhile, according to a report by the Local Democracy Reporting Service in ChronicleLive, the Northumberland leader, Councillor Glen Sanderson, told a county council meeting yesterday that: ‘A wheel has fallen off on devolution because of the change in Prime Minister. Whilst ministers swap over, we’re currently on hold in coming to any sort of decision.

‘The proposals we have seen are exactly the same as all the other groups have seen. There can be no feeling that anybody knows any more than anybody else. We’re not going to make a decision today. Hopefully we will know a little more in November… Once the text is available, we will share it. There will be a consultation process; that means consulting with all members of the council. I think it is the right thing to be doing.

‘I am pleased with the way the councils are working together and this is bringing a fresh way of light, not just for our council but North East England as a whole.’

COMMENT

When we wrote on this website yesterday that plans for a new devolution deal for the North East might be about to collapse, as they did in 2016, we did not expect the situation to deteriorate so rapidly. As far as one can tell – as talks are taking place in total privacy – the reason it has now done so is that council leaders are finally having to face up to hard choices which they have been avoiding for months.

The result is that no one seems to have a grip. A new deal may be drifting away from the region, as it did in 2016 after 11 months of wrangling.

It is not just a question of whether the terms of the deal, reportedly worth £3bn over 30 years, are good enough but whether Durham is going to join a regional deal or pursue a go-it-alone county deal.

Durham Labour Party is holding a public consultation clearly designed to secure support for a go-it-alone deal, which the county’s coalition administration has described as ‘a bit rich and far too late’. To which one might reply: ‘Better late than never’. This website has consistently argued for public engagement in the devolution process.

Had Durham consulted its voters months ago it might have a better idea now which option to go for. But that still does not necessarily mean it would do what the public want. The county council, then controlled by Labour, consulted its public on the proposed 2016 deal, and secured 81,964 responses representing 21.7% of the electorate. A majority of 59.5% thought that devolving some power and resources to the North East would be a step in the right direction; 14.9% thought it would not; and the remainder thought it would make little difference or didn’t know. Yet when the time came to vote on the deal on September 6, 2016 the Durham leader voted against.

The government offered Durham a county deal back in February; as far as is known that is the basis on which the council’s coalition administration opened talks; a county deal is what the Labour opposition wants. Everyone agrees. Yet still they are managing to have a row.

The threat to the current deal is not just from Durham though, as Councillor Sanderson’s intervention about the wheels coming off reminds us. In November last year the Northumberland leader commented that ‘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’. This prompted North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll to respond that he would not do a new deal bringing in the three south of Tyne councils (Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland) if it meant dropping Northumberland from the existing agreement. Whether that impasse has been resolved is still unclear.

Meanwhile, where those three south of Tyne councils stand now remains shrouded in mystery, for they are saying nothing of significance in public. They all voted against the 2016 deal, led by the nose by Gateshead. In all probability they simply have no idea themselves which way to jump and are waiting for Gateshead to give a lead again.

Councillor Martin Gannon, the Gateshead leader, told ChronicleLive as long ago as 2018 that: ‘At some stage some future government…will have to do something to pull this governance together. It’s dysfunctional to say the least’. Dysfunctional it certainly is, but it is not just, or even primarily, the government that is responsible for the North East’s governance mess. It is the council leaders, and it is up to them to sort it out. As probably the most influential leader in the region, Councillor Gannon should take a lead.