In a recent article, North East Bylines discussed how and why Tees Valley accepted a devolution deal in 2016, and the role of the parmo in that process, leading the way in turning northern England blue. Today, as we await the results of public consultation on a new deal for the North East, we consider why the northern part of the region rejected devolution in 2016 at the same time as Tees Valley said “Yes.”
It is a long story in all senses of the word, and a very different one, revealing a history of division, rivalry and mistrust dating back to the Middle Ages and continuing into the 21st century.
The historical background
One day in 1269 the mayor of Newcastle, Nicholas Scott, led a party of about 130 citizens on the journey of some eight miles to the settlement of North Shields, then controlled by the Prior of Tynemouth. What they did there is detailed in the allegations made against them later at Northumberland Assizes, namely:
“that with force of arms they came to the said Prior’s mills at Shields and burned them down; and that they beat up and maltreated several of the Prior’s monks they found there; and that they seized and took away a ship belonging to the Prior that was loaded with sea coal; and that they caused other damage. There they inflicted outrages causing damage to the Prior to the value of three hundred pounds.” (Page, 1891).
Although there can’t be many people in the 21st century who are aware of that particular raid, there lives on in some parts of North East England a vaguely defined but deeply felt ambivalence towards Newcastle which sees it as both a focus of regional pride, with its fine neoclassical architecture, its striking riverside, its cultural facilities and its universities, but also as a cause of resentment by some for its perceived unfair share of attention and development compared with its neighbouring municipalities.
This rivalry is popularly expressed most visibly in the sporting arena. As is not unusual anywhere, football crowds have to be marshalled by police when Newcastle United play Sunderland, or for that matter when Sunderland play Middlesbrough, for local rivalries are widespread in North East England. But they are mirrored at the political level too, not usually, it is true, with the same underlying threat of disorder as among football crowds, but often with equal depth of feeling and forthright language.
Mutual political antagonisms find fertile ground in the region’s town halls, where local politicians harbour resentment towards a central government which they blame for austerity and denying them the “fair funding” they need to do their jobs, yet have been unable until now to agree among themselves to share responsibility for the action needed to make the region more prosperous.
The result has been to split North East England not just into the two parts created in 2010 by the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with Tees Valley connivance, but into three with a new economically nonsensical division drawn along the line of the River Tyne eight years later.
It has seen the election of a populist Conservative mayor to head a previously mostly Labour-voting area in Tees Valley and a Momentum mayor over both the modernising metropolitan residents of northern Tyneside and the farming communities of Tory Northumberland. Meanwhile, the economic management of most of the region has been left in the technocratic hands of a self-selecting group of business leaders, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP).
King and Bishop
Back in the Middle Ages, North Shields was not alone in paying the price for challenging the privileges of the city that still considers itself the regional capital, though even in medieval times the rivalry was sometimes enacted by lawyers in court rather than ruffians on the streets.
In 1383 the commons of Newcastle complained to King Richard II and his council that:
“the bishop [of Durham] wishes to create a market town at Gateshead on the Durham side of the river opposite Newcastle where no tax, custom nor toll will be payable to the king and where the inhabitants will not be liable to watch and ward nor other borough charges.”
Even then, Newcastle was sensitive about its status as “the key to the north and depot for the royal army and the commons of Northumberland in time of war”. What is more, “the men of Newcastle pay as much in tenths and other taxes as the city of York, all but 40 marks, while within the bishopric no tax nor charge is paid.” (Fraser, 1966: 257).
No account of North East municipalities with a historic grudge against Newcastle would be complete without Sunderland, the town (now city) about 12 miles away at the mouth of the River Wear, which from medieval times, under the control of the Prince Bishops of Durham, had been attempting to grow its port trade:
“For Sunderland,” writes Simpson, “Newcastle upon Tyne was a big part of the problem. By the 1600s Newcastle had a well-established royal-backed monopoly that enabled that town to control the lucrative coal shipping trade along the whole North East coast from Whitby in the south to Berwick in the north. Any ambitious developing port was expected to pay a levy to Newcastle that stifled competitive trade. Only the most courageous, determined and commercially minded Prince Bishops would have been able to challenge this.” (Simpson, 2015).
The rivalry came to a head during the English Civil War when, not surprisingly, Newcastle and Sunderland were on opposite sides, Newcastle backing its royal patron while Sunderland supported the parliamentary cause and provided quarters for an army of Scottish Covenanters. A series of skirmishes culminated in the siege of Newcastle, including bombardment from the Gateshead side of the Tyne, and its occupation by a parliamentary army including Scots and Wearsiders (Stonehouse, 2005; Simpson, 2015).
Back to the 21st century
These historic events may be remote and only dimly remembered, if at all, but they still matter because even in the 21st century they have their equivalents, not just on the football field but in the town halls over economic developments such as the Metro light rail system. Sunderland resented paying for the Metro through the old Tyne & Wear Metropolitan County Council from the 1970s onwards when trains did not run there until 2002. People in the city still complain that there is no line to Washington.
Studying devolution in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the North East deal in 2016, this author found tales of political rivalry to be rife, made possible by a deep and very localised sense of place and identity, notwithstanding that the entire region apart from its rural and semi-rural fringes is dominated most of the time by a single party, Labour.
These antagonisms have until now disrupted the region’s governance and prevented the formation of a stable, collaborative institutional framework for development. They came dramatically to the fore in 2016 when the seven councils constituting the North East Combined Authority (NECA) split 4-3 to reject a devolution deal offered by the Conservative government which would have brought extra powers and £30mn-a-year funding for 30 years but required the direct election of a mayor to preside over some development-related local functions in all of them.
Tees Valley’s acceptance of a similar deal in 2016 was based, as previously discussed, on mutual trust, collaboration, a willingness to work with a Conservative government and the prioritising of extra funding over reluctance to accepting a mayor.
In 2016 all these factors were absent among the seven councils of the North East – County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland. In addition, there was an astutely organised anti-deal campaign, the Campaign for Real Devolution (CARD), within the Labour and trade union movement which had no equivalent in Tees Valley.
The outcome of these combined factors was that after signing a provisional devolution deal in October 2015 and being content to be photographed doing so alongside Tory Chancellor George Osborne, author of austerity, the seven Labour council leaders spent 11 months wrangling among themselves before splitting 4-3 to reject the offer they had previously accepted.
Gateshead led the opposition, coming out against the deal on 22 March 2016, and after some stormy behind-the-scenes meetings of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) leadership board, South Tyneside and Sunderland’s leaders fell in line behind their neighbour. The deal was finally killed off at a board meeting on 6 September 2016, low key, if tense, on the surface but dramatic in its consequences, when Durham County Council’s leader also voted against, to the surprise of many.
The reasons given were financial, as well as the more vague assertion of “the current deal not being a good deal for the region.” The minutes make clear that supporters of the deal, all from north of the Tyne, argued their case. There was no mention of the government’s insistence on a mayor.
The decision to reject the deal was taken in spite of the fact that public consultation on the deal had been “positive overall” according to the official NECA report. But though stakeholders such as businesses responded to the consultation, the level of public participation was tiny, and thus comparatively easy to override.
The only test of opinion to involve a large number of members of the public was in County Durham, where the council organised a poll. There were 83,964 responses representing 21.7% of the electorate. A majority of 59.5% thought devolving more power and resources to the region would be a step in the right direction, 14.9% thought it would not, and the remainder thought it would make little difference or didn’t know.
South Tyneside and Sunderland councillors pusillanimously left it to their leaders to decide whether to back the deal or not, and in the end they followed Gateshead’s lead. Durham’s leader agonised over the decision before eventually bowing to the wishes of the Labour group on the council and casting the deciding vote against the deal.
Tensions over devolution and the accompanying public consultations are made clear by two comments made to this author by leading regional politicians. One, referring to the poll carried out in County Durham, said:
“Durham had a referendum and the majority of people wanted to go ahead with it. Yet he [the Durham leader] voted against it. So that £250,000 or whatever it was that he spent on a referendum was meaningless. Because the Labour group or whoever they were put the pressure on him.”
Another, referring to a later but similar consultation on establishing the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), said:
“In North of Tyne they’ve carried out a public consultation and 1,086 people have responded on line. By my calculation I think it’s 0.04% of the population of the affected area, and it’s a permanent governance change. I think that’s inherently undemocratic.”
These comments both came from Labour politicians referring to their party colleagues.
According to the Local Government Association (LGA):
“Devolution aims to provide councils and combined authorities with greater flexibility and freedom to improve public services and outcomes in their area. To fulfil these aims residents should be engaged and involved in decision making and commissioning processes.”
We already know that business leaders back the new deal but we are still waiting to learn what the public response to consultation was, and crucially how many people took part. It would be welcome, if unlikely, news if significantly more people participated than in 2016.
Given the experience of 2016, it probably doesn’t make any difference what the relatively tiny proportion of the population who almost certainly took part thought. Council leaders will do what they judge best, and arguably rightly so; this is, after all, a representative democracy, not a direct one.
So it would be surprising if the North East turned down a region-wide (Tees Valley excluded) deal again, given the momentum that has built behind such deals in the years since 2016 and particularly under Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove. There is now a much greater public awareness of such deals, thanks to the high profiles of mayors such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley.
Still, it is disappointing that North East councils leaders have not done more to engage the public in the concept of devolution and what it could mean for the region, as advocated by the LGA. Collaborating is a much better way for the North East to address its common problems in the 21st century than the modern equivalent of burning down each other’s mills and beating up each other’s monks.
Fraser, C.M. (ed.) (1966) The Publications of the Surtees Society. Durham and London: Andrews and Co. and Bernard Quaritch.
Page, W. (ed.) 1891. Three Early Assize Rolls of the County of Northumberland. Durham: The Surtees Society.
Simpson, D. (2015) Old Sunderland. Online at: https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/old-sunderland/