North East leaders 'blindsided’ as County Durham seeks late entry into devolution deal worth £3 BILLION
and live on Freeview channel 276
Bosses at Durham County Council announced earlier this month that they wanted to be part of an agreement which would see a new mayor elected in 2024 governing a massive combined authority stretching across Northumberland, Tyneside, Wearside and County Durham.
But a devolution package for the entire ‘LA7’ area is far from a done deal and requires the support of the six other councils involved, who one MP claims were “blindsided” by Durham.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands opinion is split among leaders in Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Sunderland over whether Durham should be allowed into the pact so late in the day and which ministers are reportedly poised to approve in its current form.
It is feared that complicating negotiations could jeopardise the existing draft deal for the six, particularly given the turmoil in Liz Truss’ government and predictions of big public spending cuts.
The six councils will now seek confirmation from the government over exactly how the funding on offer in their proposed devolution deal would be affected by the addition of County Durham.
That draft deal, the result of months of negotiations, would be worth more than £3 billion in government funding over 30 years, including:
*A £35 million per year investment fund
*A £900 million transport funding package up to 2027
*A yearly £44 million budget for adult education and skills
*A raft of new decision-making powers, including the ability to bring bus services under public control
In a joint statement, the leaders of Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Sunderland councils said this week: “We have been in talks with Government for some time over a new devolution deal which can make a difference for all our communities.
"At all times we have been seeking a deal that matches our ambition, where each local authority and combined authority can see the clear benefits for residents.
“Our current position is one where we have a deal on the table from Government which we’d like to take for consideration by our councils and communities.
"Any discussions with government or neighbouring authorities to expand this deal would be entered into with the best interests of our residents and businesses in mind.”
For the Labour-run Tyne and Wear councils, the Durham question also presents an internal party political dilemma.
Pursuing an LA7 deal would mean siding with the county’s ruling coalition of Liberal Democrat, Tory and independent councillors which has run Durham County Council since 2021.
The county’s own Labour councillors and MPs opposed the plan and backed a standalone deal instead.
In a letter to Lib Dem council leader Amanda Hopgood, North Durham MP Kevan Jones claimed that Parliamentary representatives and the region’s other council leaders had been “blindsided” by the announcement, while City of Durham MP Mary Foy also called the decision an “incredible U-turn”.
Cllr Hopgood said a region-wide deal “makes good political and practical sense”.