The original Devo Deal for the North East was proposed in 2016. South of Tyne baulked at the elected mayor idea and we ended up with what we have now – a mayoral authority North of the Tyne (three counties) and a combined authority (four counties) south of it, of which Durham is a member. This Combined Authority has no mayor and little power, mostly concerning itself with allocating grants for infrastructure and industrial development. North of Tyne has more power and more money. There is also a joint committee for transport, but its powers and budget are limited.
The idea of devolved authorities is to take power from the government and give local control. It does not take power away from local authorities. The new authority would have direct control over bus services and local rail. There will be money to spend on developing affordable homes on brownfield (old industrial) sites. These are already allocated for housing, and local authorities will still control development on greenfield land. There will be better coordination of Further Education and skills training, and more money for regional industrial development. There is an opportunity for public health to work regionally too – which they want. It may not be perfect but better than what we have now. And making “perfect the enemy of the good” (not getting all you want is better than getting nothing) as Voltaire supposedly said gets us nowhere.
There is much uninformed talk about Durham being controlled from Berwick, and local authorities being abolished. This simply is not true. The majority of the population of the North East lives in an area bounded by the A1 to the West, Peterlee to the South and Blyth to the North. Berwick will feel just as left out as Barnard Castle might. The answer is to ensure the authority is run in an inclusive way, benefitting the rural as well as the urban areas.
How will it be run?
There will be an elected mayor and a cabinet of seven representing the local authorities which make up the new authority. They will be able to determine policy and influence the mayor. The tricky question is who will that mayor be?
The new authority will be more than twice as big as the existing one. It includes local authorities who are developing new industries such as Sunderland with automotives, batteries and IT, Gateshead, rapidly becoming a cultural centre, and Durham the biggest of all the local authorities with 500,000 people, which is certainly not a backward rural county . The largest industrial park in the North East, and one of the biggest in the UK is in Newton Aycliffe, right in the south of our region.
Whoever does become Mayor must make sure things are run inclusively for the benefit of the whole region. Far too many people feel it will be run from Newcastle, and most of the money will go to bale out the Metro. The two candidates announced so far for the Mayor’s job both come from Newcastle. It is time for others to come forward from other parts of the region. Other areas must stop assuming everything happens in Newcastle. This new authority is for the whole region, and must act like it.