North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Shropshire North: what it means for the North East

Viewed purely from the perspective of levelling up the North East, and in the context of the remaining three years (maximum) of this parliament, yesterday’s Tory defeat in the Shropshire North by-election is bad news.

This website wants to see the end of Boris Johnson and his government for many reasons, but with a parliamentary majority of around 80 the government, if not the Prime Minister, looks secure until 2024 if it decides to stay that long.

And for as long as it does remain, the North East will be dependent on it for funding the levelling-up agenda. The Shropshire North result makes that dependency still more precarious; it adds to the pressure on ministers to ensure that places like rural Shropshire get their share of the limited funding available, even if they are not traditionally seen as in need of levelling up.

Even before the result in Shropshire was known, the online newsletter PoliticsHome reported yesterday detailed how cash from all the levelling-up funds now distributing money around the country had by-passed Shropshire North. Its headline suggested the introduction of a new concept into the agenda: while levelling-up funding up has usually been thought of as for ‘left behind’ areas, it is now possible for any area to claim to be ‘left behind’ in the distribution of levelling-up funding.

The lack of levelling-up funds for North Shropshire, reports PoliticsHome, ‘has led to comments during this fierce by-election that the seat…has been taken for granted by the Tories who have been trying to woo the newer voters in the North and Midlands.’

This website made the same point on June 21, after the Tories lost the Chesham and Amersham by-election in Buckinghamshire: ‘What it means in practice is that for party political reasons the north and Midlands will from now on face increased competition for finite resources from Conservative areas of the south perceived to be at risk of defecting from their traditional Tory home’. 

Of course many factors will have contributed to the Conservative defeat in Shropshire North: the government’s handling of the pandemic, Downing Street parties, the cost of living, the Owen Paterson lobbying affair (it was Paterson’s resignation as local MP that led to the by-election) and local issues.

But yesterday’s result will pile pressure on ministers to shore up their position in their heartlands by awarding them some of the limited levelling-up funding that is available, and that will mean less for areas like the North East.

Indeed, there are already signs that that is what the government is planning, with reports that the delayed Levelling Up White Paper will aim to spread devolution to counties in every part of England, as reported here on December 10.

In this situation, the only advice this website can offer is the same as after the Chesham and Amersham result: ‘The best the North East can do between now and the next general election…is put itself in a position to get the most it can out of whatever levelling up investment the government chooses to make available. That is all the more reason for the seven councils which made up the North East Combined Authority (NECA) until 2016 when they rejected a devolution deal and split the Tyneside economy down the line of the river, to reunite and do a new NECA deal as soon as possible. The onus is on Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham (unless the last of these decides to go it alone) to re-join their colleagues in the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – and reverse the error they made five years ago’.

In the six months since then, as in the five years since NECA split, there has been no sign that the four south of Tyne councils have learned anything from events or taken any positive steps to further the North East’s devolutionary interests. All they have done is talk, and hardly any of that, at least in the public realm, which is where this topic of vital interest to the region should be debated.