Durham County Council has been invited to talks with the government about a county devolution deal, in a move revealed by the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) today and foreseen by this website as long ago as March.
The invitation has come from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, where Michael Gove took charge this week with responsibilities including the levelling-up agenda.
Talks are not expected to start until after the publication of a White Paper on levelling up, expected in the autumn.
However, a go-it-alone county deal for Durham is only one option for the North East. Another possibility, being promoted by North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll is a deal taking in all seven councils in the North East (Tees Valley excepted) – Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and Durham.
These seven, the so-called LA7, were all members of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) until it split in 2016 over a previous devolution offer from the government. Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle, which backed the deal, broke away, formed their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and did their own deal.
The other four councils, including Durham, remain in a rump NECA without a deal. Durham cast the deciding vote when the NECA7 rejected devolution in 2016, but the Labour group which controlled he council at that time lost power this year for the first time in a century.
Driscoll’s plan would see the original seven-member NECA re-united, but a Durham county deal would leave Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland either stranded without a deal between the devolved NTCA and devolved Durham, or seeking their own deal from a weakened position. or having to reunite with NTCA with their tails between their legs.
As the LGC puts it: ‘It is feared this [a Durham county deal] would complicate discussions over a region-wide devolution deal’.
Durham leader Amanda Hopgood (Lib Dem) told the LGC: ‘It would be wrong of us if we don’t explore all avenues, but we’re not committed to any one option.’ Sunderland leader Graeme Miller (Lab) said the possibility of a Durham county deal was ‘muddying the waters’ regarding an LA7 arrangement.
NECA’s leadership board and Durham’s cabinet both met this week but there was no public discussion of these important issues affecting the economic development of the region, leaving the public in the dark about what is going on.