EXCLUSIVE: South Of Tyne Councils ‘Very Unlikely’ To Join New Devolution Deal

Senior Labour Party figures in the North East believe the four south of Tyne councils are very unlikely to reunite with their North of Tyne neighbours in a new devolution deal covering all seven local councils in the area, this website can reveal.

 If they are right, it would dash the hopes of North of Tyne’s Labour Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, who is hoping that all seven will rally round a deal he is negotiating with the government and form a reconstituted North East Combined Authority (NECA). 

Mary Foy, MP for Durham, said at a Labour Party online conference that she had been told by Councillor Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council, that it was ‘very unlikely’ the south of Tyne four would join on the terms now being offered because they still wanted ‘real devolution’ and a constitutional settlement for the region. 

She also revealed that Labour was opposed to the mayoral model of devolution at least in part from fear that the ‘wrong person’ would be elected. 

Opposition to the devolution deal now under discussion with the government puts Councillor Gannon and the leaders of South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham at odds with Mayor Driscoll who has said he hopes the south of Tyne four will join in. 

Mary Foy told the Labour Party online conference yesterday: ‘The arguments over a North East-wide devolution deal have not completely gone away. There has been stuff in the press recently that the North East devolution deal is being resurrected and that the south of Tyne local authorities are having their minds changed by national political circumstances and the determination of this government to press ahead with the mayoral model and they are hoping for a better deal. 

‘We’ll have to see how that pans out. But I spoke to the leader of Gateshead earlier and he said it’s very unlikely on the terms being offered now that they will join the North of Tyne authorities, because they still want real devolution and a constitutional settlement for the North East region. 

‘However, I don’t think we can get swept away with the technicalities of devolution and the structures and organisations to devolve power rather than the opportunities that it brings. Looking back at the 2004 referendum [which rejected a North East Regional Assembly by 78%-22%], there are very important lessons to learn, and we have to win hearts and minds to the ideas behind devolution. 

‘We have to explain to people how it will affect and improve their lives practically and how it will bring power closer to them by enabling them to have a say in what happens in their own communities, and I think that if we do that, we can convince the people of the North East that progressive devolution is better for them rather than creating new layers of bureaucracy just for the sake of it. 

‘I think that means tapping into the positive aspects of regional identity and pride and having that debate about how we can get a fair share of the UK’s economy, transport investment, research and development, new green technologies and much more. 

‘The Westminster centre of power has failed regions like the North East but we cannot win the argument for a more federal, decentralised UK without engaging with people’s real hopes and real aspirations for the future’.    

Mayor Driscoll told a Labour online conference in January that he was negotiating a devolution deal based on zero poverty, zero carbon and the creation of 50,000 good quality jobs [2]. 

‘Then regionally they’ll have to make their decision whether they want to come with us, and I strongly hope they do’, he added, referring to the four south of Tyne councils.  

Referring to the decision of the North East Combined Authority to reject a devolution deal in 2016, Mary Foy made clear that the decision was partly driven by party political considerations. She said: ‘The combined local authorities were on the verge of signing a North East devolution deal that would have created a mayor for the North East…but the south of Tyne local authorities withdrew their support on the basis that the terms of the deal just didn’t offer enough for the region, and it didn’t come anywhere close to replacing the funding that we had already lost to austerity. 

‘And we were very much opposed to the mayoral model…We have seen how potentially dangerous it can be to have the power in the hands of one man – and if it happens in the North East it’s likely to be a man, not a woman…And you know it also could be political suicide for the Labour Party if the wrong person does become mayor’. 

Mary Foy was a member of Gateshead Council’s cabinet in 2016 when Councillor Gannon led the south of Tyne councils in opposition to the devolution deal then of offer, splitting the seven-member North East Combined Authority and leading Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland to form the North of Tyne Combined Authority and do their own devolution deal.