North East Devolution and Levelling Up

The North East’s impotent leaders

What are the Labour politicians who once ruled the roost in the North East’s town halls to do now that they are, to use the words of former Chancellor Norman Lamont about Sir John Major’s government in 1993, in office but not in power?  

Their impotence was never more clearly on display than at yesterday’s annual meeting of the North East Combined Authority (NECA). For those who don’t know, which probably means most people in the region, NECA is the combination of four councils – County Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – which is supposed to work with the business-led North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) to drive the economic redevelopment of its area.

NECA also collaborates up to a point with the neighbouring North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), consisting of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland, from which it split after disagreeing in 2016 over whether to do a devolution deal. NTCA now has a deal, while NECA still does not, meaning the Tyneside economy is divided, with a mayor, an investment fund and enhanced local powers and responsibilities on the north bank of the river, however inadequate in the eyes of its critics, but none of these at all to the south.

Few gatherings of what are supposed to be the leaders of their communities could have presented a more pathetic sight than yesterday’s annual general meeting of NECA at Sunderland Civic Centre. Even taking account of a generally low public interest in local government, it was dispiriting to see not a single member of the public apart from this author. The drab, spacious council chamber left ample space for social distancing for the five NECA members and handful of officials.

White Paper

NECAS’s impotence in the face of a Tory government with an 80-seat majority was made clear when the chair delivered his update. When it came to the all-important issue of devolution and its future, all he could do was repeat what is already known about what the government is doing, or not doing.

The  Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper was originally included in the December 2020 Queen’s Speech, Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, reminded us. The government had committed to it paving the way for more devolution deals and metro-mayors as well as the levelling up of powers between existing mayoral combined authorities.

Subsequent to this, explained Councillor Miller, it had been suggested that the White Paper would include significant content in respect of local government reorganisation primarily to make it easier for devolution deals to be agreed in areas which currently have two-tier local government, such as the East Midlands.  

The White Paper was being developed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) but progress slowed while the Government was focusing resources on tackling the pandemic. When published, said Councilor Miller, the Levelling Up White Paper would supersede the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper, and would transfer levelling-up policy from MHCLG to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office.

MHCLG had said that its ‘plans for strengthening local accountable leadership’ would now be included in the Levelling Up White Paper, and that the government remained ‘committed to devolving power to people and places across the country’ and would ‘set out how bold new policy interventions would improve livelihoods across the country as we recover from the pandemic.’

All this amounts to, it must be said, is getting the bureaucratic processes right – necessary, no doubt, but achieving nothing on its own.

In addition to his written update, Councillor Miller added verbally that the English devolution debate had recently emerged more prominently, and there were arguments for bespoke deals. ‘We will watch this debate and await the White Paper with interest’, he concluded lamely.

Watch and await? Is that all the North East’s leaders are going to do? As not just devolution but also such important issues as the levelling up the North East so badly needs, local government reorganisation, strengthening locally accountable leadership and bold new policy interventions are debated, have they nothing to contribute?

So the position the North East is in now is that its leaders are watching and waiting while the government gets its bureaucratic act together. This is far from the urgent action on devolution that the region needs.

One cannot imagine Andy Burnham in Manchester watching and awaiting, supinely, while the future of issues like these affecting his area is debated and decided in Whitehall and Westminster. NECA’s leaders need to engage with the public, decide what they want for their area and start pushing for it politically.

They could begin by declaring their intent to re-unite with the NTCA councils north of the river and sign a new, joint devolution deal. We know the North of Tyne mayor, Jamie Driscoll, has been talking to the government for months about a new zero-poverty, zero carbon deal, though what stage it has reached is not clear.  

To be fair, NECA is party to a NELEP-led Covid-19 recovery and renewal deal put to the government as long ago as last September. But that is essentially a plea for money – £2.8bn to be precise. One thing North East councillors are good at is asking the government for more funding. Of course the North East needs money, for both services and investment. But councillors need to come up with more. They need to give the government a reason for working with them.  

Tees Valley’s leaders knew this back in 2014, when Tees Valley Unlimited, the predecessor of Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership, agreed that it needed to show the government it was not just asking for extra money but was seeking ways to manage and spend it better; it needed to demonstrate that it was taking responsibility. Tees Valley has not looked back since.

To be fair again to NECA, the government is playing a party political game, exploiting levelling up and devolution for party advantage. On the very day that NECA was holding its dismal annual meeting in Sunderland, the Communities Minister, Robert Jenrick, announced town deals worth over £700m to help regenerate 30 towns throughout England. Three of the towns, receiving a total of over £80m, are in the North East region. All are in Conservative constituencies and are in or near Tees Valley.

Is this pork barrel politics? Yes. Is it unfair? Undoubtedly. Is it what Professor Will Jennings, of Southampton University and his colleagues have called governing through political spectacle? Certainly. But what are the politicians of the North East (as opposed to Tees Valley) going to do about it? Gateshead’s leader, Councillor Martin Gannon, complained vociferously at NECA’s meeting yesterday that the government still did not understand the extent and depth of poverty in his borough. That the poverty exists is true for all to see; that the government does not understand it is probably not true; complaining about it while refusing to collaborate with the government’s model of devolution and levelling up is unrealistic.

The Labour Party’s new leaders in Hartlepool have got the right idea. After seeing Labour lose control of the borough council, lose the town’s parliamentary seat to the Conservatives and lose the Tees Valley mayoralty for a second time, and heavily, to the Tory Ben Houchen, the Northern Echo reports that they have written to Houchen congratulating him on his re-election, inviting him to a meeting and offering their support in working together for a better future for the town. Houchen should respond in the same spirit and the NECA leaders should ask themselves whether their Hartlepool comrades offer an example to follow.