Concerns about the future of investment and transport have been raised by Sunderland’s political groups following a crucial step forward in the North of Tyne devolution deal.
New decision-making powers are set to be handed to the North East by the Government after council leaders backed the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) last month.
The North East Combined Authority (NECA) currently unites seven councils in the North East including Sunderland City, South Tyneside and Durham County Councils.
Almost two years after the region-wide devolution deal was scrapped, NECA councils voted in favour of proposals for Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside to get their own elected mayor.
The decision, subject to Government approval, will see the North of Tyne authorities leave NECA and form their own alliance with increased powers and funding from central government.
Sunderland City Council (SCC)- along with South Tyneside and Durham County Council – consented in principle to devolution deal with Gateshead abstaining from voting.
But several political parties in Sunderland have shared concerns about the deal and it’s potential impact on the city.
Leader of the council’s Conservative group, Coun Robert Oliver, said it “represents the biggest shake up in how the region is governed in many years so it is of concern that Sunderland has chosen not to take part.”
He said new powers granted to the North of the Tyne Mayor – such as compulsory purchase powers to speed up housing development – would “seriously weaken” South of the Tyne councils.
As a result, he said, people may move homes, schools or jobs to “benefit from improved services and funding”.
“The new mayor is intended to be a strong voice for the area and is likely to have a place at the top table at Westminster-along with the Mayor of Tees Valley-leaving the rest of the region as a less influential part lacking in one leader,” he added.
Leader of Sunderland’s Liberal Democrats Group, Coun Niall Hodson, said “exclusion” from the NTCA puts the North of the Tyne authority “in a much more powerful position” to access funding.
“It obviously leaves us behind and out of the loop,” he said.
While Sunderland has a “strong relationship” with other councils on transport, he explained, a questions remains over the funding of bus services and the Metro.
“The sad part is we really don’t know how much we stand to lose but we will find out over the next five to 10 years,” he added.
Sunderland Green Party press officer Rachel Featherstone, added the deal “add another layer of bureaucracy and concentrates power in even fewer hands.”
She added the NTCA mayor would have less power than other metro mayors with the deal also affecting the Metro which would need to work across a “more complicated arrangement of local authorities.”
“This is a rare occasion where we agree with the Labour council when they say that Sunderland will be better served by remaining outside the new combined authority unless a better deal is offered,” she said.
The NTCA will also lead to the creation of a new separate joint committee for transport, alongside what remains NECA and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.
Leader of Sunderland City Council, Harry Trueman, said the council and NECA had worked on assurances the NTCA would cause no “detriment” to the city and other South of Tyne authorities.
But he described the devolution deal as a “live for today, forget tomorrow” approach, calling on remaining authorities to “get their heads together and decide what the future is”.
“My own opinion is that it still isn’t a good enough deal.” he said.
“How can you guarantee any group of people funding for the next 30 years, you might not even be in government.”
Following a Labour group leadership election over the weekend, Coun Graeme Miller was selected as the new leader of SCC.
Coun Trueman will stay in the role in the interim with his sucessor expected to be formally appointed to leader on May 16 at a full council meeting.
Outgoing leader, Coun Trueman, added: “I didn’t get the opportunity to take forward any future deals and I can’t predict the future.
“But I’m sure that Graeme will be in there having our say for Sunderland.
“There have to be times where we come together for the good of the North East.
“That’s what it’s all about, fighting for your city and funding for the region.”
If the Government approves the deal before Parliament breaks for summer, the first meeting of NTCA will be held in July when an interim mayor will be appointed.
Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service