The LA7 group of North East council leaders has got off to a bad start when it comes to engaging the public: it meets in private and its papers are not available to the public.
It has been the default position of the region’s council leaders for decades that important decisions are taken privately. As legislation has forced the meetings of councils and their committees to meet mostly in public, important and controversial decisions have remained behind the closed doors of party group meetings.
This was what happened when the North East Combined Authority rejected a devolution offer from the government in 2016. The final decision was taken ostensibly at a public NECA leadership board meeting, but it followed months of private wrangling in party groups and closed pre-meetings.
Now the LA7 is embarking on a similar path. The group started as an informal joint response to the Covid pandemic. Few would argue with that.
The LA7 has now moved on, however, from emergency Covid measures to a call for significant devolution and more than £1bn over five years – mainly for transport projects.
These may well be the right demands and priorities. In a statement, the LA7 say: ‘We have been in regular dialogue with government, the region’s MPs, and other partners to secure the best possible deal for the North East – a one which is inclusive based on the principles of people and place’.
There is nothing wrong with that, and of course discussions will go on privately. But they should be accompanied by public meetings where relevant documents are available, feedback can be given and questions asked. Questions like:
- Is this a prelude to a reunification of the seven councils into a single combined authority with a new devolution deal and a mayor?
- Why is the Norhumbria Police and Crime Commissioner a signatory to a document about economic development?
- Why is the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP), which is responsible for the area’s economic development, not a signatory?
- How does the £1bn-plus demand from the LA7 fit with NELEP’s £2.8bn Covid-19 recovery and renewal proposal to the government?
- Who is in charge – the mayor, the LEP, the two CAs, or the LA7?
The North East’s economic governance, in short, is institutionally incoherent and not fit for the purpose of driving recovery. No government could be expected to entrust £1bn to such an chaotic governance.
It is also far from transparent, as the fifth question above and the opaque workings of the LA7 demonstrate. This in spite of the fact that the North East Combined Authority, which represents four of the seven, has paid lip service to openness. The minutes of NECA’s overview and scrutiny committee of 19 December 2019 record that ‘concerns about engaging the public were discussed, including the need for an interesting, relevant work programme and a user-friendly NECA website to encourage participation’.
The Political Studies Association, in a study of devolution, warned as long ago as 2016 that ‘combined authorities need to move quickly to drive public engagement and wider stakeholder collaboration in implementation’. Engaging the public should become a top priority for all the North East’s local political leaders, and not just the North of Tyne Mayor, who does appear to be at least one person putting himself about.