Johnson’s levelling up speech brings County Durham devolution deal a step closer

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech on levelling up yesterday brought the prospect of a go-it-alone devolution deal for County Durham one step closer.

The possibility of Durham doing its own deal, five years after rejecting a North East deal and splitting the region, is one which this website has been virtually alone in speculating about for months. We said on March 11 that Durham might go it alone.

Yesterday our speculations were given some substance when the Prime Minister spoke of enabling county areas to join England’s city regions in taking more powers and responsibilities to help them drive the levelling up agenda. What he said is worth quoting at some length:

‘[I]f the big cities are beginning to catch up it is the rest of the country, those historic towns, our shires where local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England.

‘We need to re-write the rulebook, with new deals for the counties. There is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we have devolved to city leaders so that they can take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new jobs or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes. Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs, and they are working with them every day’.

He added:

‘We will not be proceeding with a one-size-fits-all template. One possibility is a directly elected mayor for individual counties but there are other possibilities. We could devolve power for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses. So my offer to you – and I am talking to all those who see a role for yourselves in this local leadership – come to us, come to Neil O Brien [the MP working as Johnson’s levelling up adviser] or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services.’

In explaining why devolved powers must be accompanied by some new form of accountability – whether or not a mayor – Johnson took a swipe at Labour and his predecessor as Mayor of London, the Labour left-winger Ken Livingstone:

‘Of course you can see risk and the catch in all this; we have to learn lessons of the last 50 years. Ken Livingstone of the 2000s was a very different creature from Ken Livingstone of the 1980s, but the loony left remains pretty loony and we need accountability’.

He went on:

‘Come to us with a plan for strong accountable leadership and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better, and it can be done, because there is no intrinsic reason why one part of this country should be fated to decline or indeed fated to succeed.

‘The towns and cities that people say have been left behind have not lacked for human ingenuity, they have not been short of people with courage or intelligence or imagination, and there is no place in this country that does not have something special, something about their scenery or culture or history, some selling point unlike anywhere else in the world; and they don’t think that they are left behind and they are right. They think that they are the future, or could be the future, and they are right about that too; all they need is the right people to believe in them to lead them and to invest in them and for government to get behind them and that is what we are going to do’.

LACK OF DETAIL

Johnson’s speech has been criticised for lack of detail, and we will have to wait until a White Paper in the autumn to find out exactly what the government is proposing. For a non-partisan, journalistic, northern critique of the speech read Jennifer Williams in the Manchester Evening News. 

We know Durham County Council, where the Labour leadership which voted down North East devolution in 2016 lost power this May, is considering its devolution options. As we reported here on March 17, even before the council elections, Durham’s cabinet was presented with a report which made clear that devolution was one of the few potential sources of investment to help the county recover from Covid-19, and that it was ‘vitally important’ for the county to gain maximum benefit from any devolution of powers and financial resources available.

At some point, we said then, councillors would have to make decisions about devolution, including whether to do a deal at all and if so, whether a county deal or a combined authority deal. At that time there was no sign that they were giving the matter much thought, but the election of a new non-Labour leadership in May presumably means they are now doing so. One obvious question is how a directly elected mayor of County \Durham – if there is to be one – would share power with the leader of the county council. Johnson’s speech yesterday adds urgency to that process.

County Durham’s three new Conservative MPs will presumably add to the pressure, or perhaps encouragement, for councillors to think anew about devolution, just as they will pressure the government to fulfil the promises it has made. Richard Holden, Tory MP for North West Durham, who is a spokesperson for the Northern Research Group – a pressure group of Conservative MPs – told PoliticsHome: “There’s a lot still to do but the fact the government’s even been pushing it despite Covid-19 shows they want to do it. But I tell you now, me and the rest of the Northern Research Group will be holding their feet to the fire to make sure they actually deliver.’

It is not just County Durham that needs to think again about devolution. So do the three other south of Tyne councils of Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland which also rejected devolution in 2016. Their leaders have given a churlish response to attempts by Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of North of Tyne – which does have a devolution deal – to negotiate a new one that they can all sign up to.

It takes two sides to do a deal, and if Johnson and his government can be criticised for lack of detail and failing so far to put enough money where their mouth is, the south of Tyne councillors can be equally criticised for sulking in their town halls for five years as devolved city-regions like Andy Burnham’s Manchester and Ben Houchen’s Tees Valley leave them further and further behind. The North East deserves better.