North East seeks devolved transport – Driscoll

The seven North East councils (LA7) have written to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove asking for devolved power over transport, and the funding to go with it, North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has said.

He revealed the move in an interview with the BBC’s Politics North programme broadcast today.

Mayor Driscoll said the councils north and south of the Tyne, including Durham – which is talking to the government separately about a go-it-alone county devolution deal – were absolutely agreed that they wanted transport powers and funding devolved.

‘We have written to the government collectively saying “can we have that please”. We will see – there’s a new Secretary of State [Michael Gove] in there now – whether they are going to do that. We will be talking to him quite soon – it’s in the diary – and we’ll see if we get more movement than we did with his predecessor’.

The news comes a month after the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) revealed that Durham County Council had been invited to talks with the government about a county devolution deal.

This move was causing tension in the North East, the LGC said, as it could complicate discussions over a wider regional deal. Councillor Amanda Hopgood, Liberal Democrat leader of Durham County Council, told the LGC at the time that the council had discussions with the government booked in over the next few weeks.

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the North East Combined Authority (NECA), told the LGC at the same time that urgent discussions had been taking place between LA7 leaders and chief executives in order to send correspondence to ministers as quickly as possible seeking clarification on the implications of a Durham deal for a wider deal.   

This website has been speculating since March about the possibility of Durham doing a go-it-alone devolution deal, while urging the LA7 to re-unite in a regional deal, and it is becoming increasingly clear that behind-the-scenes moves are now picking up.

The four councils in NECA – Durham, Sunderland, South Tyneside and Durham – remain without a devolution deal five years after rejecting a previous government offer mainly because they did not think the financial incentive of £30m a year for 30 years was enough and partly because they did not want an elected mayor.

Since then, however, they have seen investment pouring into neighbouring Tees Valley over and above the £15m annual grant it gained through the deal it accepted in 2016, and the attention heaped on mayors like Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen and Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham.

The LA7 now appear to be scrambling to catch up, prodded by Driscoll and spurred on anew by the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary for Levelling Up.

From the little Driscoll said on Politics North it seems they may be hoping to have their cake and eat it – a limited devolution deal with powers and funding over transport alone rather than the wider responsibilities common to devolution deals, such as planning, housing and adult skills, and without the obligation to accept an elected mayor.

The suggestion that the LA7 are seeking devolution for transport alone is strengthened by a report to the most recent meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee on September 21 which states: ‘Work is being carried out to identify the opportunities which a long-term, devolved settlement for transport would present for our region’.

The LA7, including the three North of Tyne councils that do have a devolution deal headed by Mayor Driscoll, already sit alongside each other on the joint transport committee because they have no choice, given that the Metro light rail system runs of both sides of the Tyne. A devolution deal would give them significant new advantages.

It would unlock half a billion pounds that could be available for improving transport in the North East currently going begging because the four councils south of the Tyne have no deal, as this website revealed on July 9.

It would also open up the possibility of bus franchising, giving elected councillors control over services as in London instead of a second-best enhanced partnership with bus companies, as reported here on June 19.