Devolution and Levelling Up The North East

Do a deal now or keep losing out

This website has been arguing since it was established in January 2021 for the North East’s seven councils (the LA7) to reunite and do a devolution deal with the government in order to get the most of whatever funding is made available for levelling up.

Today it is no longer alone in making that case. The Journal, Newcastle’s morning paper, in its editorial today, also argues for an LA7 deal: ‘We are punching below our weight. And we need to fix that’, it says.

The Journal’s support for devolution, while welcome, has been prompted by a most unwelcome interview given by Councillor Glen Sanderson, leader of Northumberland County Council, to the Local Democracy Reporting Service’s (LRDC’s) Daniel Holland, also in The Journal.

As far as Councillor Sanderson is concerned the present arrangements between the LA7 are working very well without a formal partnership and he doesn’t want to be forced into a devolution deal by promises of new funding.

He told Holland: ‘So far as I am concerned we have a long way to go before we could consider becoming part of a combined authority with all the councils along with a mayor’.

So the £500m or £600m (depending on who you are listening to) from the £4.2bn City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS) that is said to be sitting on the table waiting for the North East to pick up, if only it will do a deal, is apparently comparatively unimportant in Councillor Sanderson’s view.

That is not to mention all the other funding and favours that the North East has seen lavished on Tees Valley, which does have a devolution deal, this year.

Councillor Sanderson’s interview is published just three days after he sat in the council chamber at Gateshead Civic Centre and approved a bid of £804m to the government to improve the region’s bus services. Failure to get the money it wants will have at least some of the following consequences:

NO new bus stations at Alnwick, Durham, Bishop Auckland and in Newcastle city centre;

NO new bus access to North Shields Fish Quay and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP), phase 1 of which was announced this week to be fully let;

NO more park-and-ride sites;

NO lower, simplified fares and expanded routes and timetables;

NO special deals for those aged under 19;

NO care leavers’ concession;

NO wheelchair users’ guarantee;

NO superbus routes and new interurban expresses running up to every five minutes;

NO improved rural bus services tailored to the specific requirements of the communities they serve.

At best, tough choices would have to be made between these highly desirable aims, which have been dangled before the public but seem all too likely to be snatched away again.

At worst, if the North East Joint Transport Committee does not get at least £123m of the £804m. it is asking for, it may prove impossible to maintain bus services even at their present level.

Strictly speaking, funding for the bus plan is not dependent on an LA7 devolution deal, but as we have consistently seen in the different treatment handed out to the North East and the city regions with devolution deals, notably Tees Valley, in practice not having a deal is a huge drawback.

No deal will greatly reduce the region’s chances of getting the funding it wants for ambitious projects in addition to the bus plan. The North East Transport Plan calls for £6.8bn by 2035. The Northumberland Line linking Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to the Tyne and Wear Metro is going ahead, but only today the Northern Echo reports that the government has rejected another element of the Transport Plan, the reopening of the Leamside Line linking Tursdale near Ferryhill in County Durham to the Metro at Pelaw , on the grounds that the £600m cost is prohibitive.

Councillor Sanderson’s misplaced reluctance to do an LA7 deal is yet another complicating factor on the road to North East devolution, already complicated by Durham County Council’s exploration of the possibility of doing a go-it-alone deal, and apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of other council leaders.

Leaders of Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland councils are waiting passively for the Levelling Up White Paper due by the year’s end, while the Newcastle City Council leader told the LDRC that he is ‘open minded’ about a new deal but what he really wants is the government to hand over the CRSTS cash without waiting for a regional mayor to be in place.

Only the North Tyneside borough mayor displays any sense of urgency and realism: ‘If we continue to miss out on funding, especially for essential infrastructure upgrades like transport, the region could be left behind quickly’, she told the LRDC. ‘It is time we explore joint working again and move as one region which can have a bigger impact’.

When the current model of devolution was launched by then Chancellor George Osborne in 2015 he made clear the reason he wanted an elected mayor was to have someone to be accountable to both ministers and voters for the powers and funding devolved. The LA7 is the antithesis of that model. It meets in private and publishes no agendas, reports or minutes.

The fact that it is an informal group should not fool the people into thinking it is not important. In the local government of the North East it is in behind-closed-doors meetings such as these that important decisions are often taken, with the public meetings that follow acting as mere rubber stamps.

The government is not deceived and nor should the people be. They should press for an LA7 devolution deal, both to improve the chances of more funding for the North East and to put into office a properly accountable mayor who they can identify as responsible for the region’s progress and just as easily throw out again if they are not satisfied.

Nissan’s £1bn announcement helps government gain interim levelling up ‘pass’ mark

Yesterday’s announcement by Nissan and its partner Envision AESC that they are to invest £1bn in Sunderland for the manufacture of electric vehicles and the batteries to power them, creating over 6,000 jobs, is truly ‘fantastic’ news, to use the word of Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. It was a day for unreserved celebration in Sunderland and the region.

When the new week begins on Monday, however, the hard work of making the most of this opportunity must begin. For the plans just announced are only the start of a much greater green revolution in which the North East has potential to play a leading role. It must not let this opportunity slip away.

As the switch of global production to electric vehicles accelerates, there will be increased demand for the cars and batteries coming out of Sunderland. Britain is going to need more gigafactories like that to be developed by Envision AESC, one of which is being planned by Britishvolt at Blyth.

There is good reason to hope that the region will indeed grasp this chance. Advanced manufacturing, including in the automotive sector, is already the No. 1 priority of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, while in Tees Valley the strategic economic plan identifies both advanced manufacturing and the low carbon economy for investment.

So our leaders and their economic advisers are aware of the opportunities and the challenges.

But more needs to be done, and two areas in particular stand out. Firstly, we need to ensure that our people have the skills to take advantage of the new jobs. That means both improving pupil attainment in North East schools, currently second bottom of the national league table; and the North East Combined Authority (NECA) needs to take control of the adult education budget, as has happened in North of Tyne and Tees Valley under their devolution deals.

Secondly, we need improvements in the local transport network so that people can easily reach the new jobs wherever they are. That is starting to happen with new, more reliable trains due to start running on the Tyne and Wear Metro in 2023 and the Northumberland Line linking Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to the Metro due to open in 2024. Now bus franchising, not currently available in the North East, in spite of years of trying by local councils, should be pursued afresh as quickly as possible so services can be improved everywhere. The government should facilitate this development.

If these steps are taken, making the good new green jobs of the future readily available to people throughout the region, the lack of incentive to learn which holds back young people in some deprived communities can be overcome. That would be a huge contribution to levelling up.

There would be a much better chance of taking these necessary steps if the four south of Tyne councils had a devolution deal. They should act as quickly as possible to secure one, preferably by re-uniting with the three north of Tyne councils from which they split three years ago.

It is an irony that Sunderland City Council, which played such a positive role in attracting the Nissan and Envision AESC investments announced yesterday, is one of the four still apparently doing nothing proactive to rectify the damage they did by voting against devolution in 2016.

And while there is justification for Kwarteng’s claim that the Nissan investment will help turbocharge the government’s plans for levelling up the North East, we should not forget that the government has been lucky that Brexit, against most expectations, has created the right conditions for the company’s decision.

So it is the private sector in the shape of Nissan that is mainly responsible for this levelling up opportunity for the North East. Central government deserves some credit for riding its luck and providing some (unspecified) financial contribution. This, combined with its support for the Northumberland rail line, means that the government can be given an interim ‘pass’ mark at this early stage of the levelling up process. But the local authorities, particularly the four south of the Tyne, have still to convince that they are fully playing their part. Notwithstanding Sunderland’s contribution to yesterday’s announcement, they must do more.

Level up our children’s dental health

By Ray Lowry

Level-up with oral health: How the North East led the way with a much- forgotten intervention

Levelling up is not just a matter of economics. It is also about health, including dental health. Some parts of the North East have led the way, but there are other places where action is still needed, and there is now an opportunity to take it which must not be squandered. Dr Ray Lowry, who is a retired consultant in both public health and dental public health and secretary of the British Fluoridation Society, explains the background.

The story started on the banks of the River Tyne in the North East of England in the 1940s.

To protect children from the anticipated bombing of industrial Tyneside, they were evacuated to the other side of the country, to the Lake District. The senior school dentist for Westmorland examined the evacuated children and noted that some of them had better teeth than the locals. When he enquired, he found that the ones with the good teeth came from South Shields. The others, with teeth as bad as the locals, came from across the river in North Shields.

Once analysed, it was found that South Shields drinking water contained what we now know to be enough natural fluoride to provide maximum protection from dental decay. The fluoride content of the drinking water made a big difference to the decay experience of children on either side of the Tyne and the country. For doctors and dentists, this was era when the potential of water fluoridation (deliberately adjusting the fluoride content of drinking water) dawned as a public health measure in the UK.

Parts of the North East have now had fluoridated water for 50 years, including Newcastle and Gateshead, but people in other places, including most of Northumberland and Durham, are still missing out, with the resulting pain and misery for thousands of children. Fluoridation plans for these areas are on the cusp of being implemented, but there is a real danger that if the government takes its eye off the ball now the opportunity will be lost.  

This parochial story has a wider resonance. The early promise of an end to dental decay as witnessed in South Shields has not been translated country-wide. Some six million people in the UK (a tenth of the population) benefit from a fluoridated water supply. While dental health has improved through other factors, such as fluoride in toothpaste, the water fluoridation dividend has largely been withheld, especially where most needed.

To level-up the oral health of the region and the nation, water fluoridation ought to be implemented across the UK. The legislation and experience are there. Just the will to do it is missing.


Having completed the formal, but historic, business of electing a non-Labour leadership for the first time in a century, it is now vital for Durham County Council to turn its mind to the unfinished business 2016 – devolution.

The new council, of course, has a lot on its plate, including the question of whether to re-locate its headquarters from the present County Hall to make way for a business park. It is a fortunate side-effect of the government’s unfortunate delay in publishing its promised white paper on devolution and/or levelling up that the new councillors have a little time – but hopefully not much – to consider how to approach the devolution issue.

It is the responsibility of the new council not just to its own residents but to the North East as a whole to take a lead in resolving the mess its Labour predecessor helped to create when it rejected a devolution deal in 2016, splitting the North East in two.

Today, Durham remains a member of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) along with Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside while the three breakaway councils of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland have formed their own North of Tyne Combined Authority and done their own devolution deal.

Durham now faces a choice between what is likely to boil down to four alternatives:

  1. Remain in NECA without a deal;
  2. Remain in NECA and do a deal;
  3. Reunite with the North of Tyne Authority, along with the other NECA members, and do a new seven-council deal;
  4. Go it alone and do a Durham County devolution deal.

Much will depend on what is in the white paper. Meanwhile, the new councillors should turn their minds to a report considered by the old Durham cabinet on 17 March this year, which made clear what an important part devolution will play in the county’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and long-term levelling up.

‘it is vitally important’, said the Economic Recovery and Prosperity: Levelling up and Investment Report ‘that County Durham gains maximum benefit from any devolution of powers and financial resources.’ Any such devolution would be likely to cover: a long term devolved investment fund; a skills/inclusive growth/employability/adult education budget; housing; transport; rural issues; bespoke local initiatives such as culture funds; and wider public service reform.

Though there is some time to make a decision, it is, says the report ‘important for local communities and businesses that consideration is given to all of the options that are available prior to agreeing to take forward any particular course of action on devolution’, The time to start doing that is now.

Part of that consideration should include consulting the public, Amanda Hopgood, the council’s new LibDem leader, said after her election that the voters wanted to see that  councillors had listened when consultation took place; too often nothing changed. She might have been thinking about a referendum the council conducted on the 2015-16 devolution offer. More than 21% of Durham’s voters took part, or 81,964 people, of whom 59.5% thought devolving some power and resources to the North East would be a step in the right direction compared with only 14.9% who though it would not. But Durham’s leader, under pressure from the Labour group, voted against it anyway at NECA.

It is not only Durham that needs to re-think its position. Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside too should recognise that they made the wrong decision when they rejected devolution in 2016 and decide how to move forward. The North of Tyne Combined Authority and its mayor, Jamie Driscoll, meanwhile and to their credit, are attempting to negotiate a new deal with the government which Driscoll has said he hopes the NECA4 will join.

There is no sign at present that Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland are even thinking about these issues, though it is quite possible that they are – in private, which is an unfortunate practice resulting from the one-party rule that has prevailed in much of the North East for decades but it now breaking down. Durham has a great opportunity to involve the public in genuine engagement and it is to be hoped that the others will too.

Use time till Levelling Up White Paper well

The Queen’s Speech promised a ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper – but not yet, as anticipated by this website. It is now expected later this year.

There are those in the North East, naturally enough, who are disappointed at the delay. Meanwhile, the North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, has called for the White Paper, when it arrives, to offer mayors more ‘firepower’.

He told The Journal: ‘For English devolution to become a reality there needs the power for city region mayors to both generate wealth and spend it in their regions’.

There are many who would agree, but as this website argues, the North East (Tees Valley excepted) is not ready for more devolution. It rejected a devolution deal in 2016 and split in two,

Mayor Driscoll and the North of Tyne Combined Authority control only half the Tyneside economy, while the other half is in the hands of the rump North East Combined Authority. This is an institutional shambles not fit for the purpose of devolution.

Instead of spending the time until the publication of the White Paper complaining about what the government is or is not giving them, the seven councils should decide how they are going to organise themselves to be ready for devolution. They should make good use of the time to get their act together.

Elections give a chance for new thinking on devolution

North East councillors have some important and difficult decisions to make following the elections that seriously weakened the Labour Party’s grip on power as the results trickled in over the weekend. The most difficult, perhaps, faces Durham County Council, where Labour lost its majority for the first time in a century.

Not only must the diminished Labour group see if and how it can form a minority administration; that administration, whatever its make-up, also has to decide what to do about the unfinished business of 2016, when the Durham leader, Councillor Simon Henig, cast the deciding vote against the North East Combined Authority (NECA) doing a devolution deal with the government.

That unfinished business is back. As the North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll said in his column in The Journal today: ‘If there’s one thing this election shows us, it’s that devolution is on the agenda’.

But it’s not only Durham that faces a dilemma over devolution. All seven councils in the region (Tees Valley aside) are in a difficult situation. There is expected to be an announcement about levelling up the economies of lagging areas like the North East in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, followed by a White Paper later in the year.

No one knows yet what will be in the White Paper, but there’s a good chance that areas with devolution deals and elected mayors will be best placed to take advantage of whatever opportunities there are. As things stand that does not include the North East. True, North of Tyne has a deal, but it represents only half the Tyneside economy.

No easy choices

Following the rejection of the 2016 deal the area is split between the four south of Tyne councils in NECA – Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – which have no deal and no mayor, and the three breakaway members of the North of Tyne Combined Authority – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – which have both a deal and a mayor. 

What are these seven to do to prepare themselves for whatever opportunities the White Paper offers? There are several possibilities, all which entail difficulties:

  • The existing NECA could prepare to do a deal. But even if they agreed it would consolidate the split in the Tyneside economy along the line of the river.
  • The seven could re-unite and sign a new deal. But the south of Tyne four may still be too blinkered to agree. They might still feel reluctant to join a CA perceived to be dominated by Newcastle; they might still not want an elected mayor (though there is speculation the government has gone off the idea of metro mayors following its bruising dispute with Andy Burnham over Greater Manchester’s coronavirus tier status);
  • Tories now in control of Northumberland are members of Labour-controlled North of Tyne Combined Authority because they inherited their membership from their Labour predecessors, but they might be reluctant to join a new body controlled by the Tyne and Wear five, all still firmly in Labour hands;
  • Durham might also be reluctant to re-join an organisation from which many of their residents, particularly in the south of the county, feel remote.
  • Both Northumberland and Durham may prefer to wait and see if there are plans in the White Paper to devolve to single shire counties of which they can take advantage – a definite possibility in view of Tory interests in such councils in the south of England.
  • If Northumberland and Durham opted out to go it alone and sign county deals, that would leave the five metropolitan councils to re-create something like the old Tyne and Wear County Council, which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 for ideological reasons.

Tyne and Wear actually worked very well: it built the Metro, played its part in attracting Nissan to Sunderland and did some other useful economic development. Barring some form of full fiscal federalism and the re-incorporation of Tees Valley – both remote possibilities and bringing their own problems – re-creating Tyne and Wear alongside county deals for Northumberland and Durham might be the best solution.

There are no easy choices for the North East, but at least with some new councillors there is the hope of some fresh thinking. Whatever councillors decide, they should at least do something. The south of Tyne four in particular seem to have simply stagnated since 2016 as a new local government world of metro mayors like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley has passed them by. And when they do act they should take the public with them. No more secretive decisions behind the closed doors of the town halls, please!

Why BEIS jobs are coming to Darlington – Kwarteng

It would be easy to interpret Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s explanation for recent announcements that government departments are to move to Darlington as party political bias. Easy but wrong.

The Treasury, the Department for International Trade and Mr Kwarteng’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are all to get bases in the Tees Valley town.

On a visit there this week Mr Kwarteng told the Northern Echo of the importance of bringing civil servants out of Whitehall in order to improve the quality of decision making. He then added: ‘Also in Darlington you’ve got, and let me say this very clearly, very, very strong local leadership.”

He praised the Conservative leader of Darlington council, the Conservative MP and the Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, who was recently re-elected with 73 per cent of the vote. ‘His tremendous majority is not only an endorsement of what he is doing but it really shows, I think, that the local team are the right people to deliver.’

That seems like pretty clear political bias, and there is no doubt that Kwarteng was displaying political support for Houchen and his Tory colleagues. But his line of argument was not directly from Conservative politicians to good decision-making and thence to civil service relocation, but from strong local leadership to those things.

There is a lesson there for the North East. It does not have to vote Tory in order to win government support for levelling up, but it does need strong, united local leadership, which is just what it lacks. The area’s seven councils should start by re-uniting and doing a devolution deal.