North East Devolution and Levelling Up
Penshaw Monument

Worried mayors fear for levelling up

The North East’s two metro mayors – Tory Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Labour’s Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne – are worried and frustrated in their different ways by the power vacuum in Downing Street and impending change of Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.

With most candidates to succeed Boris Johnson standing on a low-tax platform which does not bode well for the public funding the North East needs to pump-prime equally vital private investment, both the region’s mayors, Tory and Labour, see danger ahead for levelling up.

Mayor Houchen, as reported in the Northern Echo today, has issued a five-point ‘Levelling Up Pledge’ which he wants all candidates for the party leadership and premiership to sign. He wants:

  • A commitment to retain the Department for Levelling Up headed by a cabinet-ranking secretary of state;
  • Reform of the Treasury Green Book, which evaluates where public investment should be directed and has, he says, continually held back investment in the north;
  • A commitment to work with mayors around the country to seek a furthering and deepening of English devolution;
  • A commitment to full construction of Northern Powerhouse Rail which would improve cross-Pennine transport; and
  • More fiscal [tax and spend] powers for metro mayors, particularly over business rates and economic investment.

We have seen previous attempts to increase investment in the north, such as the Northern Powerhouse, become lost in the political wilderness after a change in leadership and we simply cannot allow for that to happen again’ writes Houchen.

‘Too many people have put their faith in our party, many for the first time, to deliver real change to regions all around the country and reneging on this promise would rightly not be forgotten.’

Meanwhile Mayor Driscoll, writing in The Journal today, is clearly frustrated: ‘My task is to get the best [devolution] deal for the North East. As the resignations flooded in I was making contact with new ministers and ex-ministers.

‘I’ve been mayor for three years and I’m on my fifth local government minister. Three resigned, one sacked, one new one. It happens. We’re at an advanced stage of negotiation. New ministers will want to show government is functioning’.

The fulminations of both mayors serve only to display how politically impotent the North East remains when the chips are down. That even a loyal Conservative like Houchen can worry that levelling up might become just another initiative that gets ‘lost in the political wilderness’ speaks volumes.

If the region had proper devolution, with the fiscal authority that Houchen says he wants, or the other money-raising powers of which Driscoll and others have spoken in the past, such as a land value uplift levy or an Earnback payroll tax, as reported here on June 14, it could watch the Tory contest with some confidence that whatever the outcome its own plans could carry on relatively unscathed.

As it is, as a region without a proper devolution deal it is at the mercy of whichever candidate is chosen by members of the Conservative Party to succeed Johnson who – to be clear – this website is glad to see the back of for a variety of reasons.

Now he is going, the North East and its mayors are left raging in their comparatively restrained English rather than passionate Welsh, Dylan Thomas manner against the threatened dying of yet another light that once promised to lead the region out of its perpetual economic darkness.