Tiptoeing Round Devolution

North East councillors are either tiptoeing round the subject of devolution or avoiding it altogether. 

When Durham County Council’s cabinet met today it was presented with a report by officials that made clear that devolution was one of the few potential sources of investment to help the county recover from Covid-19, and that it was ‘vitally important’ for the county to gain maximum benefit from any devolution of powers and financial resources available.

Officials seem clear enough, and councillors did not demur. But neither did they show any enthusiasm or decisiveness. They simply noted ‘the external opportunities for strategic funding and the importance of County Durham receiving significant government investment to ensure levelling up is delivered.’ 

During a debate on economic recovery, prosperity, levelling up and investment after Covid-19, in which four councillors took part, devolution was not mentioned once, even though it formed an important element of the official report before them. 

At some point councillors will have to make decisions about devolution, including whether to do a deal at all and if so, whether a county deal or a combined authority deal. But at the moment there is no sign that they are giving the matter any thought. 

All one can say in their defence is that they are waiting for the government to reveal its plans through an expected white paper on English devolution and local recovery. It’s a feeble excuse for people who are supposed to be their county’s leaders. 

Still, at least the Durham cabinet had the subject on its agenda which, as far as is known, is more than can be said for the other three south of Tyne councils that rejected a devolution deal in 2016 – Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland. The North East Combined Authority (NECA), of which they are all members, cancelled its March meeting and, with local elections intervening, is not due to get together again until June. 

True they meet informally, with their North of Tyne counterparts – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland, in the so-called LA7. But the government is not going to do a deal and give hundreds of millions to an informal body that meets in private and publishes no agendas, reports or minutes. 

Also this week, the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) indicated that it is willing to go along with the government’s National Bus Strategy, which actually offers it the sort of powers over buses that it has been wanting for years, as well as a share of £3bn. 

The committee has been talking to the bus companies and to ministers – even if they are Tories – and has found that dialogue pays where constant sulking over unfair funding does not. ‘We are willing to play our part’ said the JTC chair, Councillor Martin Gannon. 

This is the same Councillor Gannon who, as leader of Gateshead Council, led the south of Tyne four in opposition to the 2016 deal. It’s a fair bet that he is the one who will eventually lead them back into a reconstituted NECA7 and a new devolution deal. If he doesn’t do it, it’s hard to see who else has the leadership.