The North East’s 30-year, £4.2bn devolution deal that will see the election of a mayor for the region covering Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and County Durham, has won support in a public consultation.
The cabinets of all seven councils in the region will consider the outcome of the consultation at meetings between 30 May and 2 June and all are being recommended to take the next step to finalise the deal.
This involves sending the consultation report to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove so he can – as expected – make a statutory order abolishing the region’s two existing combined authorities, the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) north of the river and the North East Combined Authority (NECA) to the south.
A new North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) will be created from May 2024 re-uniting the seven councils seven years after they voted 4-3 to reject a previous devolution deal, starting a process that led to their split.
The results of the public consultation were published on the same day as North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll formally launched his campaign to be elected mayor of the enlarged combined authority. His first hurdle is to be selected as Labour candidate, a role for which he is competing with Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuiness.
The North East devolution deal, which currently has the status of a “minded to” deal, will put the North East on the same institutional footing as areas with mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) like Greater Manchester and Tees Valley, though the powers, responsibilities and funding devolved from Whitehall vary in detail in every case.
The North East will get £4.2bn over 30 years, including a £48mn annual investment grant and a £563mn transport grant; power to exercise public control over bus services (franchising); £60mn a year for adult education; £69mn for housing and commercial development; and control of the region’s £102mn UK Shared Prosperity Fund, replacement for European Union funding.
The public consultation
Public consultation on the deal took place between 23 January and 23 March. Fifteen public events took place, with at least one in each council area. Members of the public were also able to complete paper or online surveys, which most opted to do. There were also bespoke online briefings for key stakeholder groups representing business, the energy sector, education, the voluntary and community sector, transport, town and parish councils and young people. Altogether 3,235 people and organisations took part.
People were asked whether they agreed, disagreed, or neither agreed nor disagreed with five aspects of the deal:
- Transport: 66.4% agreed with the proposals, 24.2% disagreed and 9.4% neither agreed nor disagreed. The consultation report comments: “There was strong support and respondents felt that it made sense for areas to work together under a regional strategy and with an integrated transport system. People felt that the proposals offered a real opportunity to improve transport, particularly public transport.”
- Skills, employment and adult education: 64.6% agreed with the proposals, 23% disagreed and 12.4% neither agreed nor disagreed. The report comments: “There was strong support for the proposals with increased opportunities to work at a regional level to deliver on skills and training. Respondents felt that national delivery was too remote from local need and that local authority level potentially could miss out on opportunities to create synergies across different partnerships, whereas working together at a regional level would provide this.”
- Governance: 61.2% agreed with the proposals, 29.6% disagreed and 9.2% neither agreed nor disagreed. The report comments: “The responses have demonstrated support for increased regional power and local decision making through devolution and the role of the elected mayor and the higher profile this will bring to the region as a whole.”
- Housing and planning: 60.2% agreed with the proposals, 26.3% disagreed and 13.5% neither agreed nor disagreed. According to the report: “Respondents felt that housing decisions for the region are best decided by local people and that they could see great potential for housing improvements, in particular the development of new affordable and social housing. There was also support for the opportunity that devolution created for improving environmental sustainability within housing.”
- Finance and investment: 52.9% agreed with the proposals, 33.2% disagreed and 13.9% neither agreed nor disagreed. The report comments: “Respondents felt that the proposals will create opportunities and improvement for the region as decisions can be made at a local level using local knowledge and appreciation of local need. There was support for devolution to attract strategic log-term investment that will improve the region.”
Concerns and objections
Those who disagreed with aspects of the deal were concerned about:
- The governance proposals would lead to greater bureaucracy and cost for local residents. The report comments: “To some extent this may be based on the view that there will be another layer of local government that might duplicate the role of individual local authorities, which is not the case.”
- The role of the elected mayor. According to the report: “The benefits of the ‘minded to’ deal are dependent on moving to a mayoral combined authority. The proposals set out clearly the role and powers of the elected mayor, but it will be important that these aspects are very clearly communicated to the public and other stakeholders going forward, particularly in the context of the mayoral election.”
- The need for all areas – cities, towns and rural – to benefit. The report remarks: “The…deal aims to achieve exactly that as it is intended to be a deal for the whole of the region.”
- The public should have had a chance to express a view on the “minded to” deal itself rather than the governance proposals. The report comments: “The proposals have been progressed in accordance with the requirements of the 2009 [Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction] Act and the consultation exercise allow[ed] members of the public to express their views on the proposals as a whole since the changes to governance are needed to allow the ‘minded to’ deal to be implemented.”
Members of all seven cabinets are being advised by their officials that:
“The public consultation has been extensive and it is considered that the responses to that consultation support the view that the proposed governance changes would meet the statutory criteria.”
If all agree and pass the necessary technical resolutions at their cabinet meetings over four days from 30 May, the consultation report will go to Michael Gove to decide if the criteria have indeed been met and if so make the statutory order required to abolish NECA and NTCA and establish NEMCA in their place. The seven authorities will then be asked to give their consent to the order, probably in the autumn. The process will be completed, it is anticipated, in time for NEMCA to come into existence and the mayoral election to take place in May 2024.
The North East is almost on the last lap of its long and tortuous journey to devolution. The first attempt to give the region an admittedly very different type of devolution failed when the public threw out the Labour government’s plans for a regional assembly by a big majority in 2004. Eleven years later Tees Valley’s five leaders, all Labour at the time, accepted a devolution deal and a mayor with reluctance: “No mayor, no deal; no deal no money”, as one of them told this author.
But the rest of the North East, after initially accepting a deal, dithered for almost a year before rejecting it by 4-3 votes and splitting along the line of the Tyne. Meanwhile it has seen most other parts of the north and much of the midlands accept deals and gain significant powers and funding as a result. Tyne & Wear is the only one of the six former metropolitan counties not to have a deal covering its whole area.
Though the consultation reports being presented to the seven cabinets are understandably upbeat about the majorities of people in support of all aspects of the deal, there is clearly a significant minority who are still hesitant, as evidenced in particular by the 38.8% who either disagree or are not sure about having a regional mayor.
That minority should not be allowed to block a deal which offers so much potential to the region, particularly in terms of transport and adult education, but it should be treated with respect and consideration, with credible reassurances given. As the report says, it is important that the mayor’s role and powers are clearly communicated to the public and other stakeholders. Given the current controversy surrounding the Teesworks redevelopment site, whatever its rights and wrongs, some who would welcome being championed by a mayor from the same mould as Andy Burnham might not feel the same about being represented by another Ben Houchen.