North East Devolution and Levelling Up

LA7: A Case Of Mission Creep

The LA7 is a group of local authority leaders in the North East which has emerged during the Covid-19 emergency as a new feature on the area’s governance landscape. But just what is it? Who are its members? What does it do? To whom is it accountable? 

The LA7 first appeared on the scene on 15 September 2020 with a statement on Durham County Council’s website announcing that the seven councils – Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, Durham, North Tyneside, Northumberland and South Tyneside – ‘have come together to take the unprecedented step of seeking greater controls from government to introduce stricter Covid-19 prevention measures ahead of national intervention.’ 

This was understood, said the LA7, to be the first instance of neighbouring authorities uniting to lobby for stricter lockdown restrictions ahead of their imposition by government. They were asking for power, funding and resources, and greater control over test and trace. Possible measures could include reduced opening hours for pubs, restaurants, takeaways and cafes and stricter limits on household visits.

 Less than a month later, on October 12, in response to ‘early promising signs in infection rates’ the group had changed course and announced in a statement on Gateshead Council’s website that stricter measures would not be welcome. Meanwhile, the seven leaders had become eight through the addition of the North of Tyne Mayor. 

Five days later questions started to be asked about this shadowy group. ChronicleLive reported that two Northumberland councillors were concerned that by joining the LA7 the county, which had the lowest level of Covid-19 cases in the region, was placing itself in a position to be put in the highest tier of restrictions. What is more, the two complained, the decision to join the LA7 had been taken without consultation with either the council or residents, and without scrutiny. They called for a public online meeting and an indicative vote. 

Public money

On 6 November it emerged that the LA7 was spending public money. It had awarded a £500,000 contract to a Newcastle marketing firm, funded by the Department for Health and Social Care, to run a public information campaign explaining the Covid restrictions to people in the area. The money was said to be one element of funding secured from the government to support work to tackle the spread of Covid, though how much more had been handed over to the LA7 and exactly what for was not clear. Liberal Democrat councillors in Newcastle complained about lack of transparency and scrutiny. 

By 9 February 2021 the LA7 had greatly expanded its ambitions from emergency co-ordination to long-term recovery. The group was looking five years ahead and seeking over £1bn from the government for transport and digital connectivity as well as further devolved powers for integrated management of the transport network. By this time the seven group members had become nine through the addition of the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner. 

By early May the LA7’s statement seeking this £1bn had disappeared from Durham County Council’s website. How can the North East’s leaders first ask for and then withdraw an application to the government for such a significant amount with any apparent public discussion? 

The LA7’s powers of co-ordination were tested in March 2021 and found wanting. Its attempt to organise the payment of Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) to businesses affected by Covid had turned into a shambles. 

ARG is paid by the government to individual councils to support businesses that are severely impacted by Covid restrictions. Each council can determine which businesses to support and the amount of funding provided. But the LA7 appears to have tried half-heartedly to act collectively, not individually. 

According to an account in ChronicleLive on 6 March, the LA7 group’s handling of the grants prompted more than 100 businesses which felt they had been unfairly denied access to the funds to form an ‘LA7 Excluded’ campaign group. 

On 19 March the Newcastle leader, Nick Forbes, tweeted that ‘we can’t give out money we don’t have’. Three days later, however, the LA7 did a U-turn and wrote to the LA7 Excluded group saying the councils were planning to open new funds for many of those businesses previously deemed ineligible. Sunderland and Northumberland have since revealed details of their offers while South Tyneside has already made payments. But Newcastle has confirmed that it will not be setting up a new fund. 

On 23 March the LA7 group said that they had received £59m from the government of which they had paid out £39m. They offered to work with the LA7 Excluded group to lobby the government for more money. Asking the government for more is the Oliver Twist default position for North East councils in difficulties and one around which they have no problem uniting. 

On 6 April, however, Newcastle said that it was setting up a fund after all, having received an extra £1.7m from the government. The council leader said he was ‘grateful that Government has listened to our concerns‘. 

Informal

This shambolic early attempt to co-ordinate the distribution of a relatively small sum, resulting in the establishment of a campaign group of local businesses feeling they had been unfairly treated, does not inspire confidence in the ability of the seven, eight, or nine leaders to handle the £1bn-plus they are, or were, asking for from the government. 

What is one to make of this story of LA7 mission creep from Covid emergency response in September 2020 to ambitious bid for £1bn and devolved powers six months later? Is it good for the North East or not? 

When this website asked about the role of the LA7 it was told it was an informal group that meets to help coordinate the efforts of the two combined authorities and seven local authorities north and south of the Tyne. Informal meetings between local leaders are only to be expected and co-ordination is welcome, particularly in times of emergency, provided any agreed actions are processed through the relevant combined and local authorities and their open and democratic procedures. 

However, the record shows this is not what has happened. The LA7 group meets entirely in private and does not publish agendas, reports or minutes. No wonder some opposition councillors are unhappy at lack of consultation, transparency and scrutiny. 

If the LA7 is an informal co-ordinating group that exists to assist in harmonizing the region’s emergency response to Covid, subject to the democratic oversight of the seven local authorities, that’s fine. If it is a prelude to the re-establishment of a seven-council North East Combined Authority following its damaging rejection of a devolution deal in 2016 and subsequent split, that is welcome. 

But if it is an attempt to secure devolved powers and substantial funding for an informal body that does its business in private and is accountable to no one, that is unacceptable and we can be confident that the government will not fall for it. Nor should it. If the North East is to receive substantial devolved sums, whether for Covid recovery or levelling up, it first needs coherent and transparent,  democratic governance, which at the moment it does not have.