Political absenteeism could put North East devolution deal at risk

North East council leaders have the opportunity to do a ‘really ambitious’ devolution deal, official papers reveal. But they are in danger of undermining their credibility with the government by failing to turn up for important meetings. They risk forfeiting the confidence of ministers by treating business leaders with apparent disdain.

The last two board meetings of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP), the business-led body charged with driving the region’s economic regeneration, have been inquorate because hardly any council leaders, who are all board members, have participated – even though the meetings were online.

This could be an early sign of a recurrence of a problem seen in 2017-2019 and uncovered by this author when researching his thesis (pp. 205-207). At that time the NELEP board held nine consecutive inquorate meetings, and in seven of those cases it was the absence of council leaders that caused the meetings to lack a quorum.

The government notices when this happens. Inquorate meetings were the main governance issue raised by the government when NELEP underwent its annual appraisal on 14 January 2019 at a meeting attended by a senior civil servant and NELEP leaders. NELEP gave an assurance that the matter was being raised with board members and constituent local authorities.

Yet now, at another critical moment for the North East when political leaders should be working with leaders of business and civic society to take advantage of the government’s offer to expand devolution in the region, they are again starting to treat the board of NELEP – the main body where council and business leaders sit down together – as not important enough to attend.

The most recent NELEP board meeting on March 17 was inquorate because only two of the six local government representatives attended – North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll and Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon. The previous meeting on January 27 was also inquorate with only one council leader, North Tyneside Mayor Normal Redfern, present, meaning that NELEP has not held a quorate board meeting this year.

Nor was that the start of the recent outbreak of the problem. On July 22, 2021, Councillor Gannon was the only council leader to attend, and an inquorate meeting was only averted by the device of allowing two councillor observers to step up into the member role, as allowed in the constitution.

Overall therefore, of the six NELEP board meetings since council election last May, only three have been quorate without allowing observers to step in. The Sunderland Council leader, Councillor Graeme Miller, has only attended one meeting in that period, on May 27, 2021.

A PICTURE WITH VARIATIONS

This could form part of a picture in which the North East repeats, with variations, the 2015-16 experience when seven council leaders, all Labour at the time, having to negotiate with a Tory government which they strongly opposed, under pressure from the wider Labour and trade union movement to reject a deal, and self-isolated from the alternative view of the business community, rejected the government’s offer and split in two.

I summed up the business reaction to events at that time in this paragraph of my thesis (p. 117):

‘On 5 January 2017 the NELEP chair and vice-chair, accompanied by representatives of the other business organisations, met the seven NECA [North East Combined Authority] council leaders for a discussion that was ‘open, honest and conducted in a positive manner’. Afterwards the business leaders agreed key principles on which to seek government support and move the devolution agenda forward, including action in time for a mayoral election in May 2018 and involving as many of the local authorities as were willing and did not frustrate the process. The business community wanted to be acknowledged as a senior partner, the new devolution deal to be at least as good as the previous one and to have more business-focused outcomes, the SEP [Strategic Economic Plan] to continue as the principal economic policy document, and NELEP and business leaders to be part of any negotiating team.’

Now here we are, it seems, again. This time it is a secretive body calling itself the LA6, comprising the leaders of the six councils in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland (not Durham, which is considering a go-it-alone county devolution deal), the North of Tyne Mayor and for some reason the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, that is in the lead.

Councillors seem not to have noticed that the Levelling Up White Paper’s section on devolution (pp. 233ff) affords particular attention to the importance of private sector-led partnerships.  ‘The UK Government’, it says, ‘wants to encourage private sector-led partnerships across the UK, especially when these coincide with existing or potential new clusters of business activity. These initiatives should ideally seek to coordinate action not just across the private sector, but in partnership with local and central government, and local education and research institutions.’

At least the NELEP board got a 20-minutes devolution update presentation from officials of the region’s two combined authorities at its March meeting. The meeting was not open to the public, but according to the draft minutes the presentation was followed by a discussion during which: ‘The Chair stated that one of the key messages for the LEP board to consider was the collaboration piece and how the voice of business could be brought in to support this work.’

The minutes then add cryptically: ‘A mechanism for tackling the questions on the second slide was needed.’ If this was a reference to ‘the collaboration piece’ and meant that there is actually a lack of collaboration between local government and business, it was especially unfortunate that only two of the six councillor board members was there to join in the discussion.

As for the public, we have to pick up whatever and wherever we can – not only does the LA6, like the NELEP board, meet in private, it does not even publish agendas, reports or minutes. NELEP’s draft minutes of March 17 are the first written confirmation this author has seen that a new devolution deal is even being discussed; previously there have been only rumours and hints. This is no way to build partnership never mind engage the public in support for devolution and the future of the region. Old habits die hard in the North East’s town halls.

None of this is to deny that it is councillors, not business leaders, who are the elected representatives of the people and should take the lead on local and/or regional issues, including devolution. But when economic development is the main purpose it makes sense to work in partnership with business. There is a quite recent precedent in Labour’s regional development agencies. Beside, ministers are elected too and when handing out public money are entitled to demand the governance arrangements they want. They are unlikely to be impressed by a bid for ambitious devolution from a region where the existing private sector-led partnership, NELEP, cannot even rely on holding a quorate meeting because insufficient council leaders turn up, especially when they have a history of such apparent indifference.

The Local Government Chronicle (LGC) reported last week that the government has written a 13-page letter to LEPs on their future role. The chair of the LEPs Network, Mark Bretton, told the LGC: ‘The guidance…reflects a substantial programme of work up to 2030 and gives LEPs the clarity they have long sought, enshrining a clear role for local business leaders in the future devolution landscape.’

The prospect of a long-term future for LEPs stretching as far ahead as 2030 makes it all the more imperative for North East council leaders to start collaborating wholeheartedly with NELEP and other business leaders to help achieve the government’s 12 levelling up missions and bring prosperity equal to that in the rest of the country at last.

CONTRADICTIONS

NELEP’s draft minutes already referred to appear in some ways to be self-contradictory. Alongside all the negatives discussed above are to be found significant positives: ‘All of the council leaders and elected mayors were working well together, which was encouraging for the region to see, and had been recognised by the government’, one official is recorded as saying.

There was said to be strong cross-regional and cross-party collaboration between the region’s councils, combined authorities, the LEP, businesses, the voluntary sector and partners – on Covid, economic recovery and transport. Shared priorities [had been] submitted to CSR [whatever that is] and the region had worked together on good joint submissions to government.

However, to say politicians and business leaders are collaborating on Covid, economic recovery and transport is not to say very much. It is easy to co-operate in asking the government for money. For example, the North East Covid-19 Economic Response Group, including NELEP, the CBI and the two combined authorities, has had a recovery plan asking the government for £2.8bn on NELEP’s website since September 2020.

And although the list of collaborations above sounds encouraging, one specific that is missing is collaboration between the public and private sectors on devolution. On this point, the most hopeful statement in the draft minutes – but still with a veiled warning in the tail – is that ‘early dialogue’ was underway to understand the parameters, scope, and potential for a ‘levelling up’ deal…with clear political will needed from the region and from government to enable next steps.’

In addition, collaboration on devolution is a different matter from combining to ask the government for money; it involves a deal and therefore ‘give’ as well as ‘take’.

Parts of the draft minutes of March 17 suggest doing a devolution deal for the North East going even further than pioneering deals in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands: ‘There was an opportunity to be quite creative and demanding in the devolution discussions with government – given some of the challenges we have in the economy…There were a couple of opportunities for the region to leapfrog here and that was something the region would want to do.

‘The White Paper not only includes innovation deals but a sense that the government would look to deepen deals and do more creatively around squeezing funding streams together. There was an opportunity for the region to be really ambitious.’

But other parts of the minutes inject a note of caution. Though the official presentation was headed ‘Devolution Update’ in the draft minutes, one of the presenting officials stated that it had been deliberately called ‘levelling up’ rather than devolution ‘as care was being taken around the politics of this at the moment’ – possibly a sign that council leaders in the LA6 are having the same sort of disagreements that led to the rejection of a devolution deal in 2016, the splitting of the region along the line of the Tyne and all the unfortunate consequences for the North East that have followed.

There is little doubt in this author’s mind that North East councillors want the best for the region. The problem is that with most local government still, after almost 50 years, in the hands of a single party, they have become too hidebound and inflexible to work effectively with partners from a different background. It would be a tragic setback for the region if for the second time in six years they were again to fail to agree a devolution deal with each other and the government.