North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Driscoll talks up North East devolution prospects – again

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has been talking up the prospects of a North East devolution deal uniting all seven councils in the area (the LA7) – again. No doubt he sincerely wants a deal. Perhaps he even believes he can get a deal. This author hopes he can. But it takes two – or in this case seven – to tango, and there is no independent evidence yet that the four councils south of the Tyne will agree.

What was missing from Driscoll’s interview in The Journal today was any reaction to his optimism about a deal from the leaders of Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland or Durham councils, or from their umbrella body for economic development, the North East Combined Authority (NECA).

Since it was created in January this year, this website has been reporting Driscoll’s hopes of negotiating a deal reuniting the four NECA councils and the three which broke away in 2016 – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – after the then seven-member NECA rejected a deal. The three formed their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), of which Driscoll is mayor.  

This site has also reported how other Labour Party leaders in the North East have consistently been pouring cold water on Driscoll’s optimistic statements about reuniting the seven.

On January 21 we reported that Driscoll was negotiating a zero-poverty, zero-carbon deal for the NTCA which he strongly hoped the rump NECA4 would agree to join. He appeared to be encouraged by no less a Labour Party figure than John McDonell, former Shadow Chancellor, who told him quite rightly that under current government legislation devolution deals were ‘the only show in town’.

To no avail, however. As we reported on March 26, Mary Foy, Labour MP for Durham, who was a member of Gateshead Council’s cabinet when it led the charge against the 2016 devolution deal, told a Labour online conference that after talking to Gateshead leader Councillor Martin Gannon she thought it very unlikely that the NECA4 would re–join the NTCA3 on the terms then being offered as they were seeking ‘real devolution’ and a constitutional settlement for the region.

On July 9 this site reported that Driscoll had told MPs that he had been negotiating with the government about a deal for the LA7 and: ‘There is a deal on the table’. This time the slap-down was immediate: ‘There is no deal on the table’, Councillor Gannon was reported as saying the same day.

Meanwhile as part of its report today, The Journal notes that Durham is talking to the government about going it alone with a county devolution deal, confirming a possibility about which this site has been speculating since March.

Driscoll appears to be pinning his hopes of a deal in part at least on the fact that it would unlock £500m for transport spending in the region. But readers of this site, and councillors, will have known about that £500m when Driscoll was slapped down in July. If it wasn’t enough to swing a deal then, why would it be now?

In short, there is a long way to go before any definite movement towards an LA7 devolution deal can be expected, if ever. The NECA4 council leaders, their cabinets and – crucially in Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland– their Labour groups need to be persuaded to reverse their positions from those of 2016.

The government has to agree to a deal as well. Then there’s the public to be consulted, though their views on this subject have not carried much weight with councillors in the past, as this author demonstrated in his academic thesis last year .

Councillors will probably wait for the Levelling Up White Paper promised for this autumn before making a move, and even if they act fast after that – which would be out of character – a devolution deal for the LA7 looks impossible to implement before May 2023. By that time the North East will have wasted nearly seven years and thrown away £180m for economic development, plus whatever other benefits the government would have directed its way, including the £500m for transport mentioned above.