Durham to ask for ‘everything’ in devolution talks

Durham County Council will ask for ‘everything’ when it negotiates its county devolution deal with the government, council leader Amanda Hopgood has told fellow councillors.

In a statement on Durham’s devolution talks with the government at a council meeting this week she specifically mentioned economic regeneration, housing, infrastructure and resources.

But when questioned by the Labour leader, Councillor Carl Marshall, she added: ‘First of all we have to have the discussion with government, because what we’ve got so far is the [Levelling Up] White Paper and that’s the next process – to speak to them to see what options are available for a county deal.

‘There is no precedent for a county deal. We will be the first ones to have one, so we will be there asking for everything’.

Durham is one of nine areas identified in the White Paper for possible county devolution deals, with the aim of agreeing a number of these by autumn 2022.

According to the White Paper: ‘By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement’.

It argues that: ‘Levelling up will only be successful if local actors are empowered to develop solutions that work for their communities. It requires strong leadership, effective decision-making and harnessing wider private-sector leadership.

‘People’s lives are shaped by the social and physical fabric of their communities. Town centres and communities have faced unprecedented challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, and locally-led funds give local leaders the ability to deliver noticeable improvements to communities and foster pride in place, within a framework of strategic priorities determined by the UK Government’.

Councillor Hopgood told the council meeting: ‘We have worked extremely hard with government to set out why County Durham needs a devolution deal and how this will help us to invest in our local communities going forward.

‘The last two years have been a challenge for everyone, but with more local control over economic regeneration, housing, infrastructure and resources we can look to the future with confidence and optimism.

‘I can assure you that we will be working extremely hard to secure the best possible devolution deal for County Durham, and that includes working with all six of our local MPs, and we’ll set out the next steps once we’ve had furtther discussions with government.’

COMMENT

Durham’s decision to seek a county  deal will mean its secession from the North East Combined Authority (NECA), which will then consist of Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland. NECA lost Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland after the then combined authority voted 4-3 against a devolution offer in 2016. The minority three formed the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and elected their own mayor, Jamie Driscoll, in 2019.

The White Paper refers to an expanded deal for the North East, which would mean re-uniting the NTCA with the three members of the rump NECA. Mayor Driscoll has repeatedly spoken in favour of this move, and Newcastle leader Councillor Nick Forbes, who will leave the council in May after failing to secure re-selection by his ward Labour Party, has said he intends to spend his remaining time in office securing a new devolution deal for the region.

But Driscoll and Forbes both represent constituencies north of the Tyne. It is the three south-of-the-river councils that need to be persuaded, and their leaders have said little or nothing on the subject in public. Devolution is immensely important for the region, not least for the funding of its local public transport. People have a right to know what their representatives are thinking and planning.