North East Chamber speaks out on devolution

The North East is talking to the government about a new devolution deal covering the six councils in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, a regional business leader confirmed today as he spoke out about what the private sector wants from a deal.

John McCabe, chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, told The Journal in an interview: ‘The opportunity now is that we’ve got the government’s attention, we’re talking to them about this devolution deal. Let’s get that done and see it as the base camp, and then let’s start climbing the mountain after that.

Mr McCabe revealed that he has been talking to political leaders about the deal business wanted and said the Chamber had a big role to play alongside those negotiating and writing it.

‘If we get that deal over the line there’s a lot of money in Whitehall that’s going to come our way and we’re going to have the ability to take control ourselves over how that money is spent’, he told The Journal.

‘If we get this wrong, or we don’t do it, this opportunity is probably not going to come round again for a long time’.

Mr McCabe said he had spoken to a former senior minister in the current government who had told him that the North East should demonstrate its ability to coalesce behind a plan so the money would follow.

Mr McCabe said he wanted the region to secure a new business-friendly deal and urged business leaders to come forward with their requirements in areas like skills and transport.

His intervention on behalf of the Chamber comes six weeks after the board of the region’s other main business-led body, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP), received a devolution update from officials – though so few council leaders were there to hear is that the meeting, which was in private, was inquorate too, as reported here on April 10.

ANALYSIS

It is precisely two months since the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper which specifically offered to take forward negotiations to agree an expanded MCA (mayoral combined authority) deal for the North East, as well as a separate county deal for Durham. Since then, however, there has been virtual silence from the region’s council leaders.

It has been left to the business community – NELEP and now the Chamber – to either reveal what is going on or provide a forum for officials to do so, rather than political leaders shouldering their responsibilities and keeping the public informed.

This website has been working on the assumption for months, and still is, that council leaders are discussing the topic in their closed and secretive LA6 or LA7 groups, along with the North of Tyne Mayor and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner.

But as we have been complaining for over a year, these groups publish no agendas, reports or minutes, in spite of the importance of devolution to the region.

All these statements, including Mr McCabe’s today, leave little doubt that North East council leaders are discussing a new deal for the LA6, with a separate deal for County Durham. But the leaders themselves have said little or nothing on the subject.

According to a House of Commons briefing paper dated February 10, 2022, negotiations were reported during 2020 and 2021 to ‘reunify’ these two areas [north and south of the Tyne] and negotiate a new devolution deal based on the original North-East geography [Tyne & Wear, Northumberland and Durham]. Rumours in early 2022, around the Levelling Up White Paper, said the briefing, suggest that the government could offer Durham a county deal and encourage Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside to join NoTCA [North of Tyne Combined Authority].

The opacity of North East councils is a disgraceful way to treat the public, and inconsistent with the purposes of devolution which according to the Commons briefing include, alongside economic growth and better and more integrated public services, ‘enhanced public engagement and accountability: the promotion of engagement and participation as part of a healthy democracy, and being closer to the decision makers.

Mr McCabe is right to encourage Chamber members to come forward and make their devolution requirements known to council leaders. Without pressure from as many quarters as possible there is no guarantee that a deal will be done at all, and even if it is that it will be the right one for business.

The Chamber was angry and frustrated when the then seven-member North of England Combined Authority (NECA) rejected the government’s offer of a deal in 2016, a decision which still leaves the North East split along the line of the Tyne six years later. As this author discovered during research for his thesis, just before Christmas 2016 the Chamber wrote to NECA to say:

While business across the UK are faced with the uncertainty of Brexit, our members also remain frustrated by unfulfilled devolution and are calling on NECA to set out very clearly how it intends to contribute to the realisation of the ambitions originally set out in the [Strategic Economic Plan]… Ongoing uncertainty on both fronts puts the North East at a disadvantageous position compared with other regions of the UK.

Six years have gone by since then, the North East has remained in the devolution slow lane while others, including Tees Valley, power ahead, and North East leaders have said little or nothing to the public about what they intend to do about it. The Chamber, NELEP and other civic organisations should keep up the pressure for transparency and answers.