North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Durham Heading For A Devolution U-Turn?

The North East Combined Authority (NECA) may be preparing to do a devolution U-turn and strike a belated deal with the government, led by County Durham. Or Durham may be willing to go it alone and do its own deal. 

Either move would be a change of course from 2016 when the councils south of the Tyne – Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – voted against a deal while their three partners – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – broke away and formed the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), which did its own deal. 

Durham and the other three areas south of the river have remained in a rump NECA without a deal, a devolution grant or a mayor. 

This incoherent arrangement has not served either area well, north or south. Both fared badly in the Budget of 3 March, while Chancellor Rishi Sunak rewarded neighbouring Tees Valley, which agreed to a deal in 2016, with a freeport, a government economic hub in Darlington, town deals for Middlesbrough and Thornaby and other benefits.

Durham was the council that surprised observers by voting against the 2016 deal, and now it seems to have realised that it made a mistake – or, to put it more sympathetically – that Covid-19 has changed the situation, and that it needs a devolution deal to help recover from the pandemic. 

Consider all options

Durham’s cabinet will consider a report from its corporate management team next Wednesday (17 March) setting out post-Covid economic development opportunities for the county – including devolution.

‘it is vitally important’, says the report, ‘that County Durham gains maximum benefit from any devolution of powers and financial resources. 

‘The government’s preference may be for a wider multi-local authority mayoral devolution agreement in the northeast in line with devolution arrangements that have been agreed in other areas. 

‘It is however unclear whether any future government policy may include, for example, county devolution deals as have been promoted by the County Councils Network. 

‘Such a deal could see powers and resources devolved to a county area such as County Durham to support local recovery as opposed to focusing on a wider footprint across a regional geography. 

‘Until the government’s white paper is issued on English devolution and local recovery, it is difficult to determine the most beneficial option for County Durham. ‘

‘However, it is important for local communities and businesses that consideration is given to all of the options that are available prior to agreeing to take forward any particular course of action on devolution’.