North East devolution: what more have we learned?

Public knowledge of plans for a new North East devolution deal has expanded hardly at all following a meeting yesterday of the leadership board of the North East Combined Authority (NECA).

The NECA leaders and their counterparts from the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) are negotiating an expanded deal with the government that would reportedly bring £3bn in investment to the region over 30 years and re-unite the six councils in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland – though not County Durham, which is pursuing its own deal.

The councils split north and south of the Tyne when the original NECA rejected a previous deal offered by the government in 2016.

According to a report of yesterday’s NECA meeting by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) in ChronicleLive, the chair, Councillor Graeme Miller, expressed concern about the future of the levelling-up agenda in the context of the election campaign for a new Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister over the summer.

He told the NECA meeting that greater devolution of funding and powers to the North East would deliver impactful change ‘if we can agree the right deal’ according to the ChronicleLive report: ‘We need, more than ever, an enhanced relationship with the UK government to provide the fiscal and policy development that will allow us to deliver a step change in economic growth.’

COMMENT

Quite so. But what that opaque and platitudinous remark by Councillor Miller means in practical terms remains as unclear as ever. What is the ‘right deal’ that the region wants? How will it differ from what presumably was the wrong deal that four councils out of seven rejected in 2016? What sort of enhanced relationship are councillors seeking with the government? What new powers and responsibilities do they want? What is the significance of the word ‘fiscal’ in this context; It usually refers to tax and spending powers?

NECA’s leadership board is not due to meet again until October 4. Who knows what will have happened politically by then to affect the devolution and levelling up agenda. NECA could, if it wished, use the intervening period to promote the public engagement in devolution recommended by the Local Government Association. Instead, local leaders will probably keep discussion behind closed doors in their LA7 group of council leaders and their voters will be no wiser.