North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Parliamentarians set up new inquiry into devolution

A new inquiry into devolution, with a focus on non-metropolitan areas such as County Durham, has been launched by MPs and members of the House of Lords. There will be a focus on leadership, representation and accountability.

The inquiry has been set up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Devolution, chaired by Andrew Lewer, Conservative MP for Northampton South, following the publication of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper on February 2.

The white paper aims to encourage the spread of devolution throughout England, to areas outside the city regions that have been the main focus so far. One of the counties invited to negotiate a devolution deal is Durham.

According to the APPG: ‘Devolution is key to delivering on the government’s ambitions to level up the country. The UK’s prosperity depends on local factors including housing, skills provision, the ability to fund services, land use and transport connections as well as the availability of public goods and services.

‘Devolving and decentralising power while enabling communities and local people to make decisions in these areas will create the conditions for sustainable growth, better public services and a stronger society.

‘This inquiry will look at how effectively the reforms in the white paper will futureproof the UK and take advantage of effective local governance and technological advancements to prepare the nation for the challenges we will face in 2030 and beyond, with a focus on the theme of leadership, representation and accountability.’

Andrew Lewer said the inquiry would examine whether the white paper could futureproof the UK to achieve the long-lasting improvement needed to people’s pay, jobs and living standards.

‘There has been substantial focus on the role of local authorities in delivering devolution, but we are now interested in casting the spotlight on how the white paper embeds strong, safe and resilient communities through high-quality local leadership, which will allow areas to stand up for themselves and make their voice heard when seeking investment and opportunity.

‘We are keen to hear from councils across the country, think tanks, trade associations, businesses, local government representatives, government and many more, to understand what needs to change at national government level to enhance English devolution.’

The APPG has issued an open call for written evidence for its inquiry, with a deadline of July 18, and aims to publish a report in the autumn.

COMMENT

There appears to be no North East representation on the inquiry panel or among the officers of the APPG. The ten-member panel includes the metro mayor of Liverpool and the leader of Manchester City Council, but otherwise has no Labour Party representatives. Geographically, it includes representatives of places that many may not regard as in need of levelling up, including, Herefordshire, Sevenoaks, South Norfolk, Warwickshire and Watford.

 While all these places doubtless have pockets of deprivation, the composition of the panel is a reminder that the Conservative Party Manifesto at the 2019 general election promised to level up every part of the country (p. 25). This is already happening: grants from round 1 of the Levelling Up Fund were allocated to areas from Highland to the Isles of Scilly, including Central Bedfordshire, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Somerset and parts of London.

Analysis published by The Guardian on February 2, the same day as the White Paper, showed that some of the wealthiest parts of England, including areas represented by government ministers, had so far been allocated ten times more money per capita than the poorest.

As more and more areas bid successfully for a slice of the levelling-up cake there will inevitably be less and less for traditional beneficiaries of regional policy such as the North East.

There are at least two lessons to be learned from this by North East councillors. The first is that after six years of dithering they need to get their act together and agree a comprehensive North East devolution deal covering Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, probably with a separate county deal for Durham, as soon as possible.

The second message is that the APPG see devolution as a whole-community enterprise, encompassing a wide range of groups in society including business and trade unions. North East councilors seem to regard devolution as a matter for themselves alone, meeting secretively in the town halls in their so-called LA7 group, which publishes no agendas, reports or minutes, as this website has been complaining for more than a year. This must change.