Having completed the formal, but historic, business of electing a non-Labour leadership for the first time in a century, it is now vital for Durham County Council to turn its mind to the unfinished business 2016 – devolution.
The new council, of course, has a lot on its plate, including the question of whether to re-locate its headquarters from the present County Hall to make way for a business park. It is a fortunate side-effect of the government’s unfortunate delay in publishing its promised white paper on devolution and/or levelling up that the new councillors have a little time – but hopefully not much – to consider how to approach the devolution issue.
It is the responsibility of the new council not just to its own residents but to the North East as a whole to take a lead in resolving the mess its Labour predecessor helped to create when it rejected a devolution deal in 2016, splitting the North East in two.
Today, Durham remains a member of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) along with Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside while the three breakaway councils of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland have formed their own North of Tyne Combined Authority and done their own devolution deal.
Durham now faces a choice between what is likely to boil down to four alternatives:
- Remain in NECA without a deal;
- Remain in NECA and do a deal;
- Reunite with the North of Tyne Authority, along with the other NECA members, and do a new seven-council deal;
- Go it alone and do a Durham County devolution deal.
Much will depend on what is in the white paper. Meanwhile, the new councillors should turn their minds to a report considered by the old Durham cabinet on 17 March this year, which made clear what an important part devolution will play in the county’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and long-term levelling up.
‘it is vitally important’, said the Economic Recovery and Prosperity: Levelling up and Investment Report ‘that County Durham gains maximum benefit from any devolution of powers and financial resources.’ Any such devolution would be likely to cover: a long term devolved investment fund; a skills/inclusive growth/employability/adult education budget; housing; transport; rural issues; bespoke local initiatives such as culture funds; and wider public service reform.
Though there is some time to make a decision, it is, says the report ‘important for local communities and businesses that consideration is given to all of the options that are available prior to agreeing to take forward any particular course of action on devolution’, The time to start doing that is now.
Part of that consideration should include consulting the public, Amanda Hopgood, the council’s new LibDem leader, said after her election that the voters wanted to see that councillors had listened when consultation took place; too often nothing changed. She might have been thinking about a referendum the council conducted on the 2015-16 devolution offer. More than 21% of Durham’s voters took part, or 81,964 people, of whom 59.5% thought devolving some power and resources to the North East would be a step in the right direction compared with only 14.9% who though it would not. But Durham’s leader, under pressure from the Labour group, voted against it anyway at NECA.
It is not only Durham that needs to re-think its position. Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside too should recognise that they made the wrong decision when they rejected devolution in 2016 and decide how to move forward. The North of Tyne Combined Authority and its mayor, Jamie Driscoll, meanwhile and to their credit, are attempting to negotiate a new deal with the government which Driscoll has said he hopes the NECA4 will join.
There is no sign at present that Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland are even thinking about these issues, though it is quite possible that they are – in private, which is an unfortunate practice resulting from the one-party rule that has prevailed in much of the North East for decades but it now breaking down. Durham has a great opportunity to involve the public in genuine engagement and it is to be hoped that the others will too.