Building a North East Fit For Devolution

Updated on 18 April 2022

The Campaign for Real Devolution (CARD) issued a news release on 19 September 2016, 13 days after the successful conclusion of the campaign it had spearheaded against the North East Combined Authority’s (NECA’s) devolution deal. It called on NECA to combine with other organisations to make a radical, sustained case for ‘real devolution‘[1]

This was a new challenge, fundamentally different from that of campaigning for the defeat of the NECA deal. The power of the Labour groups on the four south of Tyne councils which CARD had helped mobilize against the deal was a negative, blocking power. The task now was to campaign positively to realise a new vision of devolution.

As a first (and so far only) step, a North East devolution conference was held on 16 June 2017 and culminated in a discussion on ‘the way forward for real North East devolution and the establishment of a North East Constitutional Convention’.

It was apparent at the conference that the campaign faced three challenges[2]. One was to broaden its appeal to the unspecified ‘other organisations’ referred to in its news release. Of approximately 40 people present, all but about six appeared to represent the Labour and trade union movement, and the opening statement referred to Labour activities.

[1] The CARD campaign is recorded on its Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/Campaign-for-Real-Devolution-CARD-944653188965455/

[2] The account of this conference is based on the author’s personal attendance as an observer.

Challenges

CARD’s second challenge was related to its first and concerned its apparent lack of broad appeal. Not only was there no evident presence at the conference of political parties other than Labour and the small North East Party; nor was there any representation of the business or voluntary sectors, wider civil society, minority communities or young people. About 75% of attendees and all the scheduled speakers apart from one academic, were men. While the leaders of all four south of Tyne councils were scheduled to speak, none of the three who had supported the devolution deal had a speaking slot.

A third challenge was that, now the deal had been defeated, interest was waning. Thus, although all four south of Tyne council leaders were scheduled to speak only one, whose council was hosting the event, actually attended. Now that the area’s established political order had been safeguarded, the momentum to move forward to another form of devolution, even if ‘real’, was in apparent danger of being lost. And that is what happened as CARD, having achieved its goal of blocking the deal, faded from the scene.

Finally, it is noteworthy that there was no similar campaign for ‘real devolution’ in Tees Valley, even though it was part of CARD’s case that the regional dimension of devolution policy should be revived, thus restoring Tees Valley as an integral part of the North East.

CARD proved unable to overcome these challenges. Still, it had at least made an attempt to deal with the North East’s problems with devolution which its campaign had exposed. That is more than can be said for the leaders of the four south of Tyne council leaders who, with their cabinets and Labour groups, were mainly responsible for the predicament in which the region finds itself (apart from the coalition government which abolished regional development agencies back in 2010) . 

At another gathering, two years to the day after NECA rejected its devolution deal, the leaders of the north of England gathered in a show of unity. The metro mayors of Manchester and Liverpool were among those in Gateshead for the Convention of the North to discuss the next steps in devolutionary evolution.

The Convention, like CARD’s conference before it, was a predominantly Labour Party affair. Of 33 politicians on the delegates list, 26 were Labour; from the North East nine Labour, one LibDem and no others. Notable absentees included the mayor of Tees Valley. The Convention’s final report implicitly acknowledged a problem in broadening interest in the devolution agenda, if media interest may be taken as a proxy.[1]

A second Convention followed in Rotherham in September 2019, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to do devolution properly. But he also warned regional leaders privately that they would have to demonstrate good governance. A third Convention, chaired by Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes and attended by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, was held in Liverpool on 8 February 2022, just six days after the government had published its Levelling Up White Paper. The White Paper, whatever one thinks of it, does at least clarify the government’s policy on both levelling up and devolution. But in the North East the incoherent institutional mess  resulting from the 2016 rejection of the NECA deal remains unresolved. 

[1]The account of this conference is based on the author’s personal attendance as an observer.

Not Fit For Purpose

Six years after NECA rejected a devolution deal, its seven councils have split. A mayor has been elected in North of Tyne, but with a 32% turnout – and only 27% in Northumberland, where voters had no other reason to go to the polls that day – between two-thirds and three-quarters of electors remain disengaged from devolutionary politics[1]. South of the Tyne, in spite of some losses in the Brexit-induced turmoil of England’s 2019 council elections and further losses in the Tory surge of 2021 Labour’s old guard retains majorities in three of the four rump NECA councils. The exception is Durham County Council, of which Labour has lost control for the first time in a century, though it is far from clear that devolution was an issue for voters. Durham’s new LibDem-led council is considering a go-it-alone county devolution deal. 

Aside from the unelected North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) and its strategic economic plan (SEP), the area’s developmental future looks uncertain and politically directionless, and NELEP too is damaged by the failure of council leaders to turn up for meetings in sufficient numbers to ensure a quorum.

The North East’s councils have been unable to establish the institutions fit for the purposes of devolution because they do not enjoy the trust and collaboration to allow them to co-operate across municipal boundaries. This is in spite, or perhaps because of, the fact that long-established voting habits leave a single party in control of five councils out of seven, as has been the case for most of the past five decades. Meanwhile   weak scrutiny by backbench councillors, revealed in this author’s thesis (Chapter 7) means the only real internal accountability is in the privacy of the Labour groups. Nor does the area’s local government enjoy effective collaboration with other civic leadership groups, such as business and the voluntary sector.[2]

The North East, unlike Tees Valley, just does not have the institutions to enable it to handle devolution at a geographic level that makes economic sense. Its unsuitable formal institutional arrangements, based on historic municipalities, are a symptom of its highly localised informal institutional environment based on identity[3]. As councillors are unable to co-operate effectively across municipal boundaries, an alternative solution would be local authority mergers, to bring municipal boundaries into line with economic geography. But strong local identities are likely to result in forceful political and popular resistance to this suggestion.

[1] Source: North of Tyne Combined Authority.

[2] Source: Author’s research.

[3] Source: Author’s resear

Inertia

While the south of Tyne councils of the rump NECA are democratically elected in accordance with UK practice, it is a democracy that lacks vitality. Gateshead at least displayed signs of life in leading opposition to the  devolution deal in 2016 and continues to do so in developing its Quayside even without devolution. Sunderland is developing its city centre and the other south of Tyne councils are promoting some redevelopment initiatives. But the four south of Tyne councils collectively represent municipalities which, after decades of governance by a single party with large majorities, appear to lack what Iris Marion Young, Professor of Political Science at Chicago University, called intensity of commitment to democratic practice (Young, I.M. (2000) Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford University Press). 

Faced with the critical question of devolution they seem to be gripped by inertia, uncertain which way to jump, like rabbits caught in the headlights of the Ben Houchen juggernaut as it leads the rout of Labour’s north of England hegemony. The barriers to making the North East fit for devolution remained as they were at CARD’s conference in 2016 – referred to above: lack of broad appeal and public engagement. 

The present model of devolution may not be ideal, nor is it a panacea for all the region’s problems. But it offers the best opportunity presently available to do more than keep ticking over, economically, without securing real improvement. The North East cannot afford a do-nothing approach while waiting, Micawber-like, for something better which may never turn up. The issues facing the region and its people are too serious and multifarious for that. It has a lagging economy, areas of multiple deprivation and low levels of educational attainment.

It is up to council leaders – indeed all councillors – but especially those in the south of Tyne four where the core political roadblock stands – to engage with other civic leadership groups such as business, the unions and the voluntary sector, as well as the public, and promote the idea of devolution. Then to re-unite as the NECA7 (or more likely now the NEA6 plus Durham separately) and do the best deal they can with the government.

Worst Of All Worlds

Tees Valley, with a mayoralty, has realised its sense of shared identity and transformed its politics, and now it is starting to do the same for its economy, though the results may take years to become evident (see Levelling Up Checklist).

The North East outside Tees Valley, on the other hand, by its response to devolution has landed itself in the worst of all possible institutional worlds. Its combined authority has been divided from its former partners north of the Tyne for five years and appears gripped by inertia, the Tyneside economy is split and its LEP is a technocracy that has to serve two sets of politicians, north and south of the river. By refusing to play the government’s devolutionary game, NECA has made it virtually impossible for itself to be a winner.

At the root of this problem is an informal institutional environment riven by historic and geographical rivalries played out in the private meetings of party groups and the private pre-meetings of council leaders, all largely unchallenged by weak oppositions, complacent scrutiny and an indifferent public in a democratic context lacking vitality.

NECA needs to reunite its seven original councils (now minus Durham) and embrace a common sense of purpose, which is just what it lacks. It needs something on the lines of what Professor Robin Hambleton, of Bristol University calls ‘new civic leadership’ – a partnership of local politicians, officials, business, trade unions and the voluntary sector – that is willing and able both to work with the government and to empower local people by exercising facilitative leadership, which Hambleton defines as ‘shaping emotions and behaviours to achieve common goals’. Hambleton, R. (2015a) Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet. Bristol: Policy Press.

That does not necessarily mean a change of political control – this site does not carry a candle for any political party – but it does mean new thinking that is no longer rooted in the politics of the 20th century.

The North East’s seven councils therefore need to:

  • Recreate NECA, with six of the original members (minus Durham);
  • Engage stakeholders – business, unions and the voluntary sector – to build a common sense of purpose;
  • Engage the public to win support for devolution;
  • Take advantage of the devolution opportunities offered in the Levelling Up White Paper;
  • Abolish the practice of taking all important decisions in the private meetings of party political groups – a practice which stifles public debate.

In the long term the NECA6, the five Tees Valley councils and Durham should talk to each other about how they could all be brought together again on equal terms in a single regional governance for the whole North East.

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