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Durham Castle. Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Durham leaders opt to join regional devolution deal

Leaders of Durham County Council have decided to join the North East’s other six councils in a new regional devolution deal, according to media reports today. But the news met with a furious reaction from the council’s Labour opposition, and a deal, whether with six councils or seven, remains far from certain.

The announcement by Councillor Amanda Hopgood, Liberal Democrat leader of the coalition running the council, that Durham will seek to join a regional deal comes after more than 18 months of uncertainty about the council’s intentions since this website reported in March 2021 that a go-it-alone county deal was one of the options being considered.

Councillor Hopgood, in a statement reported by both Chronicle Live and the Northern Echo today, confirmed the decision to join the other six councils in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear (the LA6) in an expanded so-called LA7 deal.

In a statement quoted by both papers, Councillor Hopgood said: ‘“As requested by the government, we have sent a letter to the Secretary of State to confirm that in principle, we have decided to join the LA6 deal along with the other local authorities in the North East, and agree an LA7 devolution arrangement. We now look forward to working with colleagues to deliver a devolution deal that will benefit residents throughout the region.

‘This approach makes good political and practical sense, and the regional model is also a route that has the backing of business. A wider deal will benefit from adding volume to a louder North East voice. There will now be further discussions with colleagues in the North East and government.’

Durham’s announcement is not, however, the end of the matter. Councillor Carl Marshall, leader of the Labour opposition on the council, said: ‘In a lengthy list of shameful regressive decisions from the shambolic coalition running Durham County Council, this is perhaps the worst.

‘County Durham had within our grasp, a once in a generation opportunity to become masters of our own destiny, set our own priorities, address the decline of public services as this Tory government – enabled by LibDems – drained over quarter of a billion pounds from our budget…but no, just like the decision to reject the regeneration of Aykley Heads to attract business, this Coalition attaches yet another enormous anchor to the growth prospects of our county.

‘Labour fervently backed the county deal. We asked residents, and of 623 respondents, 84% said they wanted a county deal. Once again, residents are not just ignored by the Coalition, they didn’t even give them any of the options.

‘The other six authorities in the North East devolution deal have already stated that County Durham’s delaying and dithering means it will miss out on over £140m in public transport funding – money that we would have received had we gone it alone.’

According to the Local Democracy Reporting Service in ChronicleLive, the Labour leaders of the five Tyne & Wear councils, whose agreement would be needed for Durham to join a deal, might yet decide to back their Durham party colleagues and withhold consent.

COMMENT

Today’s Durham announcement is a welcome step forward but only one step. This website takes no view on whether Durham should seek its own deal or join a wider regional deal, but it does take the view that one way or another a deal or deals should be done. The North East is missing out on funding opportunities for its economy and showing itself up to be a divided and  squabbling region obsessed with its petty local politics.

It is only a week since this website reported a warning by academics at Northumbria University that fragmented leadership was holding the region back. Today shows how right they were. Ministers will not be encouraged a to sign a deal with a region that does not show itself to be in wholehearted and united support.

The region’s parochial and bickering council leaders must not scupper an agreement again, as they did in 2016, splitting the North East economy along the line of the Tyne and costing the region hundreds of millions of pounds as well as additional devolved powers.

Councillor Marshall says that Durham Labour Party asked residents for their views and out of 623 respondents 84% wanted a county deal. Durham residents were also consulted in 2016 on a previous devolution offer, on that occasion by the county council. There were 81,964 respondents, of whom 59.5% thought devolving some power and resources to the North East would be a step in the right direction, with 14.9% against. But Durham’s Labour leader at the time voted against the deal anyway.