North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Leak suggests Levelling Up White Paper will be a disappointment for North East

The latest leak of what may be in the Levelling Up White Paper, when it is eventually published, suggests a disappointing damp squib as far as the North East is concerned.

A draft of the White Paper seen by The Independent says the government is planning a ‘new devolution framework for England’ based on a model of a directly-elected leader over a ‘well-defined economic geography’.

The ambition, says The Independent, is to strip back layers of local government and replace them with a single-tier system. The White Paper, according to The Independent, says that levelling up requires coherent local institutions, more streamlined than the current model of local government split across county councils, district councils and unitary authorities.

There will be a list of ‘missions’ on crime, health, living standards and other objectives to be achieved by 2030, and a new Local Growth Funding Roadmap detailing how changes in funding for regions will work, to be released in 2022 and in operation in 2023, according to The Independent.

Each mission will be ‘a rolling ten-year endeavour’ and reviewed at each spending review by the Treasury, and there will be an additional document setting out metrics for measuring progress on each, published alongside the White Paper, reports the paper.

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The White Paper, if as reported in The Independent, appears to be directed largely at the question of how to bring devolution to counties across large parts of England, mainly in the Midlands and the south, where local government responsibilities are split between county and district councils. The process of abolishing district councils and creating unitary county authorities was completed in the North East in 2009 when district councils in Northumberland and Durham were scrapped.

Institutional reform in this region, therefore, looks on course to be restricted to introducing directly elected leaders (or mayors) of individual councils in place of those at present elected by their fellow councillors. It is hard to see how this on its own will lead to the ‘coherent local institutions’ that the White Paper is reported to be seeking. The region (Tees Valley aside) will have seven directly elected council leaders plus the directly elected mayor of North of Tyne, all claiming their own electoral mandate.

Then, if all seven councils still cannot agree on a single devolution deal, there’s the chair of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) to consider, a post that is indirectly elected and rotates around the leaders of the four councils south of the Tyne – who will themselves, presumably under this new arrangement, all be directly elected in their individual municipal positions.

Apart from the institutional complications this raises as eight directly elected politicians, each with his or her own mandate, seek to represent the same region (or perhaps two regions, if they still cannot agree on a single devolution deal), there is the question of party politics and, perhaps even more relevant, the Labour Party factionalism that prevented a seven-council devolution deal in 2016.  

Beside all this, while direct elections for local mayors, or council leaders, may be welcome in themselves, they are no more than a means of ensuring greater direct accountability for any extra powers and resources provided for levelling up – not a substitute for them. And there is no evidence that direct elections are more important to voters than regular council elections. In Tees Valley this year, though Mayor Ben Houchen is a high-profile figure and was re-elected with a large majority, it was on a turn-out of only 34%, which is no more than usual for local ballots.

Then there is the question of what a ‘well-defined economic geography’ is. The North East as a whole thought it was one until 2010 when the Coalition government detached Tees Valley from the rest of the region for ideological reasons and formed two so-called ‘functional economic areas (FEAs)’.

Then the northern part of this divided region thought it had an FEA consisting of the seven council areas in Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and County Durham – until the seven leaders split, north and south of the Tyne, in 2016 over whether to accept a devolution deal. At that point, in order to persuade the government to grant them a deal of their own, the three councils north of the Tyne had to persuade ministers that they were an economic geography even without their four south–of-Tyne counterparts.

They did so with the ingenious but specious argument that North of Tyne was an economic area in its own right, a ‘functional economic market area’ within the seven-council NECA FEA, while the rump NECA also on its own, ‘would remain a coherent and functional economic geography, and could therefore operate effectively’.

This succeeded in persuading ministers in Whitehall, but no one in the North East who thinks about it believes that splitting the Tyneside economy along the line of the river makes sense.

Then there is the question of the ‘missions’ that the leak mentions and the metrics for measuring progress towards achieving them. This website reported on November 12 that Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove had told MPs that ‘we anticipate setting out some particular missions by which the government can be judged and some metrics by which we and others can be held to account’.

What is new about the leak in The Independent is the 2030 target date for achieving these missions. Local voters will hope that the promised monitoring arrangements for progress in the meantime will be as easy as is suggested.

Finally, there will be disappointment that there is nothing in the leak to suggest that new money for levelling up will be forthcoming for two years at least. The fact that all that is suggested at the moment is a Local Growth Funding Roadmap to come into operation in 2023 seems to confirm, as was reported here on December 7, that nothing more is to be expected for now than the £4.8bn for levelling up announced in the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review announced this autumn.

What is more, the Local Growth Funding Roadmap for the regions sounds suspiciously like the Fair Funding Review that North East councillors have been waiting for since 2016 in the hope of receiving a thicker slice of local government’s national cake.

Finally, if the White Paper is as suggested aimed mainly at preparing two-tier counties throughout England for devolution it is hard to escape the conclusion that all are earmarked for a share of whatever extra resources are available when the essence of levelling up is surely to target lagging regions in need of special help.

Overall, if the White Paper contains no more than is suggested in The Independent’s leak, minister can expect just as strong a collective expression of disappointment from the North East as greeted last month’s publication of the Integrated Rail Plan.