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Durham Castle. Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Durham row threatens devolution deal again

A political war of words has broken out over the decision of Durham County Council’s leaders, reported here on October 14, to join the six councils in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland in an expanded devolution deal.

Two of County Durham’s three Labour MPs have hit out at the deal, backing up the leader of the Labour opposition on the county council.

A deal for all seven councils (the LA7) would reportedly bring the region £3bn over 30 years including a £35m annual investment grant and £900m transport funding as well as important powers over public transport and adult education, and an elected mayor.

The seven were unable to agree on a previous deal in 2016, when they were all members of the North East Combined Authority (NECA), leading to a split and a separate deal for the three councils north of the Tyne – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – while the other four – County Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – remained in a rump NECA without a deal.

News that two County Durham Labour MPs, Kevan Jones (North Durham) and Graeme Morris (Easington) have come out against the new deal is reported in today’s Northern Echo.

According to Mr Jones, at the most recent meeting between MPs, including the three Conservative MPs, and Durham’s cabinet there was unanimous agreement that Durham should not join an LA7 deal but should go for a county deal instead.

‘Councillor [Amanda] Hopgood [Liberal Democrat leader of the county council] now needs to explain why she has changed her position completely and what has led to this complete U-turn’ Mr Jones told the Northern Echo.

‘This decision has been taken behind closed doors and without any consultation and yet will have a profound effect on the future of County Durham.

‘I strongly believe that this decision is not in the best interests of our county – a position that until this announcement, was one that was shared by the county’s MPs and the council’s cabinet.’

Mr Jones is reported to have written to the council leader saying no one has been consulted and the leaders of the LA6 – the Northumberland and Tyne & Wear councils – group have been similarly blindsided by the announcement.

He wrote: ‘I find it unacceptable that you have taken such a major step without any consultation with the county MPs or the public.

‘I think you should publicly explain why your strongly held views have changed and also publish the financial implications and governance structure behind these proposals.’

Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, told the Northern Echo: ‘The LibDem Conservative coalition has misled the public, local representatives and members of Parliament. There was a cross-party consensus that County Durham should pursue our own devolution deal…I completely oppose these backroom deals, that ignore and sell out the residents of County Durham.’

Councillor Hopgood told the Norther Echo: ‘This is a decision that [Durham County Council’s] joint administration has taken ‘in principle. The detailed discussions with colleagues in the North East and the government about the devolution arrangement will now proceed in the correct way.’

COMMENT

Here we go again. There is now a serious danger that squabbling between local politicians will scupper a North East devolution deal for the second time in six years. As this website has argued before, the government will not be encouraged to hand over extra funding, powers and responsibilities to local authorities that cannot show themselves to be united and collaborative.

Of course politics is about disagreements, but it is also about ways of settling disagreements, and that is best achieved by open, public debate. That is something that has been conspicuously absent during the past year and more as council leaders throughout the region have debated devolution in private meetings.

This website has long complained about important decisions being taken behind closed doors by the secretive LA7 – and now LA6 – groups of council leaders. The LA7 was set up as an informal group to deal with the pandemic emergency, which was understandable, but has gradually become a more significant element of regional governance.

We warned in April last year that the LA7 was becoming a case of mission creep and that now seems to be implicitly accepted by the complaint that the LA6 has been side-lined by Durham’s decision.

The LA6 and LA7 groups are closed to the public. They publish no agendas, reports or minutes, as we have repeatedly complained. It is not even known for sure who the members are – the relevant council leaders certainly, the North of Tyne Mayor and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner apparently. Anybody else? Who knows. Yet they are taking important decisions about devolution. Once again one must ask and reply: Anything else? Who knows. This is unacceptable