North East Devolution and Levelling Up

How transport scrutiny is failing the North East

North East councillors whose job is to scrutinise the area’s vital transport policies have held only four formal and quorate meetings out of a scheduled 14 in the past three years.

The overview and scrutiny committee (OSC) which exists to oversee the work of the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) did not hold a single quorate meeting for a year before its most recent meeting on December 16 – and then it was informal to reduce Covid risk.

Though one other meeting was cancelled because of the pandemic, in March 2020, most were nullified because not enough councillors attended to constitute a quorum. At least two meetings were inquorate even though they were held online.

The OSC’s job is to scrutinise aspects of transport policy of vital concern to North East travellers and tax payers. On October 14 this year, for example – the most recent meeting for which minutes are available – its agenda included the transport budget 2022/23 and medium-term financial strategy, zero emission vehicle policy and an update on the North East Transport Plan.

Guidance for OSC members considering the budget report included that they should consider any added value that scrutiny could bring and promote effective discussion and consider the information in the report. It is clear from the minutes that a wide-ranging discussion took place, but whether the scrutiny was as effective as it might have been is less certain – only six of the 14 committee members, plus the independent chair and vice-chair, turned up and the meeting was inquorate. Four absentees didn’t even send apologies.

The OSC’s origins have roots in the decision of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) in 2016 to reject a government devolution offer. This led to a split between the three councils north of the Tyne, which broke away, formed their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and did their own devolution deal, and the four south of Tyne councils which remain in a rump NECA without a deal.

All seven however (the LA7) had no practical choice but to form the JTC, which is responsible for transport policy on both sides of the river, including buses and the Tyne & Wear Metro. The OSC was established in December 2018 to scrutinise the JTC’s work.

According to the OSC’s website: ‘Effective scrutiny arrangements are an essential component of local democracy, enhancing accountability and transparency of decision making and enabling local councillors to represent the views of their constituents.

‘These arrangements have been established to enable local councillors, on behalf of their communities, to scrutinise and challenge the JTC, its committees and Nexus [the passenger transport executive], and to investigate matters of strategic importance to residents within the LA7 Area with a view to influencing and adding value to the decisions’.

In spite of this ‘essential’ democratic role, however, eight of the OSC’s 14 meetings between its establishment in December 2018 and October 2021 were inquorate – in other words, not enough councillors turned up to enable valid decisions to be taken unless confirmed at a subsequent meeting, usually several months later. One meeting was cancelled because of Covid and one declared informal for the same reason.

In some cases the minutes of an inquorate meeting could not even be confirmed at the next because it was inquorate too. In fact, between September 2019 and March 2020 there were four successive inquorate meetings. The only quorate meetings in the OSC’s three-year history so far were in July 2019, June 2020, October 2020 and December 2020.

The OSC consists of 14 councillors from the JTC’s seven constituent councils, reflecting the political balance across the LA7 area, plus a non-voting independent chair and vice chair (though the chair is a Labour Party member). Eleven members, including the chair and vice-chair, must attend for a meeting to be quorate.

Reflection of the political balance means that the OSC has a Labour Party majority, as has the JTC which it is expected to scrutinise and challenge.

The OSC got off to a bad start when even its first meeting on December 20, 2018, was inquorate, with nine councillors present, the independent chair and vice-chair not yet having been appointed. The next meeting three months later was inquorate again.

At the meeting on November 7, 2019 – still pre-dating the pandemic – the independent chair told the committee that ‘he intended to write a letter to members to try and improve attendance as being inquorate is impeding the business of committee’. The rebuke appears to have had no effect.

Transport is probably the levelling-up topic on which North East politicians are most vociferous, with constant complaints that the government treats the region unfairly. Yet throughout this year, when northern leaders were complaining bitterly at the government’s delay in publishing its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) and then, when it was published, at its contents, the OSC failed to meet in quorum at all until December 16, and then informally, to discuss whether the JTC’s approach was the right one.

Even though the OSC is a fairly obscure body, its record of frequent failure to muster a quorum to scrutinise and challenge the JTC and ensure it is adopting the best approach to the region’s transport challenges is likely to make a negative impression on the government.

It will give ministers an excuse to argue that councillors who cannot even turn up for important transport meetings could not be trusted to be diligent custodians of the large sums they want handed over.

The OSC was presented at its meeting on October 14 with a report warning of a budget deficit of over £19m in each of the next two years without extra support from the government or council tax payers, resulting in bus service cuts. In a single line in the minutes of that meeting, the OSC noted: ‘The Committee highlighted the need for increased engagement with central government for devolved powers’ .

That is something this website has been arguing for unsuccessfully since it was founded a year ago. Unfortunately, the impact of the OSC’s view will have been diminished, if not completely nullified, for only six councillors out of 14 plus the independent chair and vice chair were present and the meeting, as so often, was inquorate.

North East councillors have a history of missing important meetings leading to failure to achieve a quorum. During PhD research this author found problems at both OSCs and at the main board of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership; details are in the resulting thesis here.

A spokesman for the OSC told this website: ‘The OSC has been quorate on four occasions since it was established. The wide geographical spread of the JTC area, and the high quorum number prescribed in the relevant legislation are regarded as contributory factors to this problem, which is also experienced by other combined authorities’ OSCs. However, measures are being taken in an effort to improve attendance as far as possible.

‘The meeting held on 16 December [most recent] was quorate in terms of the number of committee members in attendance. However, this meeting took place as an informal online briefing following a decision by the Chair to stand down the formal, in person meeting to reduce Covid exposure risk. The agenda items for this meeting were for information and comment (rather than decisions) which allowed for a virtual briefing on this occasion. The meeting was live-streamed publicly via YouTube’.