North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Up to six investment zones for North East

The North East and Tees Valley could get as many as six investment zones and a substantial list of infrastructure projects under the Growth Plan announced by the government today.

Possible sites include Riverside, Northern Spire and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP), all in Sunderland; and the sites of Hartlepool and Middlesbrough mayoral development corporations and Teesside International Airport, all in Tees Valley.

‘Investment Zones’, according to the government, ‘aim to drive growth and unlock housing. Areas with Investment Zones will benefit from tax incentives, planning liberalisation, and wider support for the local economy.’

The zones will only be chosen following a rapid expression of interest process open to everyone and after local consent is confirmed, according to the government. It is already in early discussions with 38 authorities on establishing an Investment Zone in their area, including North of Tyne Combined Authority, Tees Valley Combined Authority and Sunderland City Council.

The planning liberalisation referred to, says the government, will aim to accelerate infrastructure delivery through measures such as minimising the burden of environmental assessments; making consultation requirements ‘more proportionate’; reforming habitats and species regulation; and reforms to accelerate road delivery through more streamlined consent processes.

A long list of infrastructure projects in the Plan includes the A167 Tyne Bridge and Central Motorway, dualling the AI between Morpeth and Ellingham in Northumberland, A186 safe road scheme in Newcastle and North Tyneside, and the A690 safe road scheme in County Durham. Rail projects include the Northumberland Line and Middlesbrough and Darlington stations.

Freeports, of which Teesside has one, and the East Coast carbon capture, use and storage cluster on the Tees and Humber are also mentioned.

COMMENT

What was billed as a mini budget caused surprise with its size and scope and it will certainly take some time to digest. However, four immediate comments come to mind as far as the announcement affects the North East and Tees Valley specifically:

  • This is intended to be a national growth policy, not a regional policy for the North East, the wider north or any other part of the UK. There are 24 potential investment zones, discussions under way with 38 authorities and 138 infrastructure projects on the list in all parts of England;
  • How many are new and how many re-announcements? The Northumberland Line, for example, stands out as a project already well under way. Others in the region sound familiar, including Middlesbrough and Darlington stations;
  • How many others, on the other hand, have been on local wish lists for years if not decades, such as A1 dualling in Northumberland? What confidence can there be that just because they are on a paper list today there will ever appear in concrete form?
  • Finally, to return to the first point above, what does this Growth Plan mean for devolution and levelling up? A national growth plan that seems to select zones and projects without regard to whether the area concerned has done a devolution deal or not, that identifies three potential investment zones in devolved Tees Valley and three in undevolved Sunderland, does not offer an incentive to the latter to do a deal now.

What North East politicians make of the Growth Plan, and how they respond in their devolution talks, will be interesting to observe in the coming days, weeks and months.