North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Elections give a chance for new thinking on devolution

North East councillors have some important and difficult decisions to make following the elections that seriously weakened the Labour Party’s grip on power as the results trickled in over the weekend. The most difficult, perhaps, faces Durham County Council, where Labour lost its majority for the first time in a century.

Not only must the diminished Labour group see if and how it can form a minority administration; that administration, whatever its make-up, also has to decide what to do about the unfinished business of 2016, when the Durham leader, Councillor Simon Henig, cast the deciding vote against the North East Combined Authority (NECA) doing a devolution deal with the government.

That unfinished business is back. As the North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll said in his column in The Journal today: ‘If there’s one thing this election shows us, it’s that devolution is on the agenda’.

But it’s not only Durham that faces a dilemma over devolution. All seven councils in the region (Tees Valley aside) are in a difficult situation. There is expected to be an announcement about levelling up the economies of lagging areas like the North East in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, followed by a White Paper later in the year.

No one knows yet what will be in the White Paper, but there’s a good chance that areas with devolution deals and elected mayors will be best placed to take advantage of whatever opportunities there are. As things stand that does not include the North East. True, North of Tyne has a deal, but it represents only half the Tyneside economy.

No easy choices

Following the rejection of the 2016 deal the area is split between the four south of Tyne councils in NECA – Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – which have no deal and no mayor, and the three breakaway members of the North of Tyne Combined Authority – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – which have both a deal and a mayor. 

What are these seven to do to prepare themselves for whatever opportunities the White Paper offers? There are several possibilities, all which entail difficulties:

  • The existing NECA could prepare to do a deal. But even if they agreed it would consolidate the split in the Tyneside economy along the line of the river.
  • The seven could re-unite and sign a new deal. But the south of Tyne four may still be too blinkered to agree. They might still feel reluctant to join a CA perceived to be dominated by Newcastle; they might still not want an elected mayor (though there is speculation the government has gone off the idea of metro mayors following its bruising dispute with Andy Burnham over Greater Manchester’s coronavirus tier status);
  • Tories now in control of Northumberland are members of Labour-controlled North of Tyne Combined Authority because they inherited their membership from their Labour predecessors, but they might be reluctant to join a new body controlled by the Tyne and Wear five, all still firmly in Labour hands;
  • Durham might also be reluctant to re-join an organisation from which many of their residents, particularly in the south of the county, feel remote.
  • Both Northumberland and Durham may prefer to wait and see if there are plans in the White Paper to devolve to single shire counties of which they can take advantage – a definite possibility in view of Tory interests in such councils in the south of England.
  • If Northumberland and Durham opted out to go it alone and sign county deals, that would leave the five metropolitan councils to re-create something like the old Tyne and Wear County Council, which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 for ideological reasons.

Tyne and Wear actually worked very well: it built the Metro, played its part in attracting Nissan to Sunderland and did some other useful economic development. Barring some form of full fiscal federalism and the re-incorporation of Tees Valley – both remote possibilities and bringing their own problems – re-creating Tyne and Wear alongside county deals for Northumberland and Durham might be the best solution.

There are no easy choices for the North East, but at least with some new councillors there is the hope of some fresh thinking. Whatever councillors decide, they should at least do something. The south of Tyne four in particular seem to have simply stagnated since 2016 as a new local government world of metro mayors like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley has passed them by. And when they do act they should take the public with them. No more secretive decisions behind the closed doors of the town halls, please!