Has North East left it too late to get devolution done properly?

The four south of Tyne councils that rejected a devolution deal in 2016 may have left it too late if they now wish to change their minds, as the emphasis at national level switches to levelling up through the efforts of individual councils rather than combined authorities.

The Local Government Association (LGA), representing councils throughout England, has agreed to do less media and lobbying activity presenting devolution to combined authorities as desirable in and of itself and direct greater focus instead on the better outcomes that it thinks might be secured through stronger local control.

The LGA sees this as a better way of influencing the Levelling Up White Paper expected in the autumn, which has now replaced the previously-anticipated Devolution White Paper.

The LGA believes that councils have shown a strong track record during the pandemic and are well placed to deliver in policy areas that are government priorities, such as improving living standards, growing the private sector, improving health, education and policing, strengthening communities and local leadership and restoring pride in place.

The change of emphasis does not mean the LGA is abandoning the pursuit of more devolution altogether, but it does suggest a more nuanced approach in which, says an LGA report: ‘By weaving devolution through policy areas that are priorities for government, we hope to promote a shift towards acceptance of devolution as a means to improved delivery’.

Nevertheless, the change, when seen in combination with the government’s decision to publish a Levelling Up White Paper instead of a Devolution White Paper, does suggest that the momentum has gone out of the devolution policy at both national and local government level. Now that all England’s former metropolitan areas except Tyne and Wear have mayoral  combined authorities ministers may  have decided that the process has reached its natural limit. Boris Johnson, perhaps, believes he can claim to have fulfilled his promise to the Convention of the North in 2019 to ‘do devolution properly’.

The danger for the North East, however, both south of the Tyne where these is no devolution deal and north of the river where the mayoral combined authority is being held back by having control of only half the Tyneside economy, is that it will remain in this limbo while levelling up is focused on all point south, starting in Tees Valley. Far from being proper devolution, this is the worst of all possible institutional worlds.