North East Devolution and Levelling Up

North East devolution: history to repeat itself?

Updated September 21, 12.40pm

North East history may be about to repeat itself with the collapse of plans for a new devolution deal which would reportedly bring £3bn of investment to the region over 30 years.

According to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) in today’s ChronicleLive the Labour opposition leaders of two of the seven councils involved in behind-closed-door talks with the government have expressed doubts about the proposed deal or even outright opposition.

But members of the public attending or streaming today’s meeting of Durham County Council, which is at the centre of what must be presumed to be intense discussion, if not turmoil, among the region’s leaders over the topic will be none the wiser.

The council meeting dealt with a normal range of routine business today, as well passing a motion of condolence at the death of Queen Elizabeth.

But the opportunity to take advantage of agenda items allowing for announcements and a report by the council leader to enlighten the public about what is going on over devolution were passed over.

However, council leader Councillor Amanda Hopgood, told the Northern Echo that discussions with the government over devolution were expected to resume in the coming weeks, having been halted following the death of the Queen.

Private talks

The seven North East councils in County Durham, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear have been involved in the private, if not completely secret, talks with each other and the government for months if not years over a new deal.

The North East was offered an expanded devolution deal in the Levelling Up White Paper published in February re-uniting the three councils in the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), which already has a deal, with the three Tyne & Wear councils south of the river – Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – which do not. Durham was offered the option of a separate go-it-alone county deal.

As the LDRS and this website reported on September 7, Durham was given a deadline of mid-October by then Levelling Up Secretary Greg Clark to decide whether to join the proposed expanded North East deal or pursue the alternative county deal.

Now the LDRS reports that the Labour opposition leaders in both Durham and Northumberland have expressed doubts about the proposed new £3bn deal, which would bring new powers as well as funding to the region.

Durham’s leader, Councillor Carl Marshall, told the LDRS that he believed a deal and mayor covering the area from Berwick to Barnard Castle would be too big, while Northumberland’s Labour leader, Councillor Scott Dickinson, accused the government of an infuriating lack of detail over what funding and powers were on offer.

As ChronicleLive comments today: ‘The latest unrest will stir memories of the acrimonious collapse of a previous North East devolution package that fell apart at the eleventh hour in 2016 amid political disagreements between the region’s warring Labour administrations.’

Although those who have spoken out today are opposition councillors, given that devolution deals are 30-year commitments the government is unlikely to be keen to hand new powers and funding to local authorities where there is not strong cross-party support. Just by speaking out, Councillors Marshall and Dickinson have probably damaged or at least delayed the chances of a deal – as, of course, they are entitled to do.