More devolution for Tees Valley?

Is Tees Valley about to get a new devolution deal with more powers and, probably, more funding? The idea that it may be is sparked by a characteristically bullish piece in today’s Northern Echo by Mayor Ben Houchen.

His references to the successes he has achieved so far with Teesside Airport, the freeport, the Teesworks industrial regeneration site and the government jobs coming to Darlington might be taken simply as the boasting of a politician – though the timing, coming just after his re-election rather than before it would make it rather superfluous for the purpose of swagger.

It is what he says about the future that looks interesting.

The successes, which he refers to as the empowering of local people, are happening, according to Houchen because of the government’s commitment to devolution to the region. ‘So I’d argue we need even more of this movement of power from Whitehall to the people of Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool’, he writes.

‘There are so many areas of our lives where we need change for local people, from healthcare to policing, and I’ll be arguing the case for more powers to be given to us to take on these challenges and to take control of our future’.

If Houchen is a canny politician as well as the forceful one has shown himself to be he will not have given a hostage to fortune like that without receiving at least a nod and a wink from ministers that they will look favourably on devolving more powers to Tees Valley. They have their own party political reasons for doing so too – rewarding a mayor and an area which have been in the forefront of the Conservatives’ assault on Labour’s ‘red wall’ in the north.

Meanwhile, what are the leaders of the remainder of the North East doing? North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll, to give him his due, has been trying for six months to get a new deal out of the government and to coax the four south of Tyne councils which rejected a deal in 2016 to join in.

There is no sign of that happening yet, at least in public. As far as the people know, the subject has not even been on the agenda. All there have been is statements from on high from the so-called LA7 group of local authorities, set up to deal with the coronavirus emergency, which meets informally, in private, and publishes no agendas, no reports and no minutes.

It would be a travesty if the seven councils in Northumberland, Durham and Tyne & Wear were to allow Ben Houchen and Tees Valley to steal another march on them while they continue to drag their feet in lethargy. The pandemic cannot be used for ever as an excuse for a do-nothing approach, and now the council elections are over the North East’s leaders owe it to their voters to spell out publicly how they intend to clear up the devolution mess they created in 2016.