'Put something on the table' - North East leaders ready to accept devolution this summer if ministers offer the right deal
A new devolution deal to have a North East mayor elected in 2024 could be put before the region’s leaders this summer.
Hopes were ignited earlier this year of a fresh deal being struck to bring more than £1bn of investment to the region and reunite councils on either side of the Tyne, after levelling up secretary Michael Gove confirmed in February that he would be “taking forward negotiations”.
The move is expected to see a regional mayor elected to govern a combined authority covering Gateshead, Sunderland, South Tyneside, Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland.
County Durham is pursuing its own single-county devolution arrangements, though this has been branded a “mistake” by one council leader.
The deal could include a raft of new decision-making powers and funding, such as the ability to bring the North East’s bus network under public control and reopen the Leamside railway line.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that “really positive” talks had been held with levelling up minister Neil O’Brien in March, with talks ongoing to hash out the details of an agreement, which it is hoped will be ready this summer.
If the six authorities agreed to the deal on offer, the likelihood is that the new authority could be established under the leadership of an interim mayor in 2023, before a mayoral election is held in May 2024.
Gannon, whose authority was the first to shun a North East-wide devolution deal in 2016, said: “If the Government is serious about levelling up and if they are going to work with us in a genuine partnership that will economically enhance the North East, then we want to work together to make that happen.”
The region’s governance has been split apart since the last set of devolution talks in 2016 broke down at the eleventh hour, prompting the three ‘North of Tyne’ authorities to form their own combined authority, with Labour’s Jamie Driscoll elected as mayor.
Coun Gannon added that he believes going for a county deal rather than joining with the six other North East authorities was a “mistake for County Durham, but we have to respect their independence”.
Amanda Hopgood, the current Liberal Democrat leader of Durham County Council’s coalition administration, said her authority was “working extremely hard with the Government to outline County Durham’s devolution deal in a way that will help us to invest in our local communities”.
Sunderland Council leader Graeme Miller urged the Government to come up with a devolution offer for the six councils that local decision-makers cannot refuse.
He added: “We are relying on a Government of the day that is reliable in being unreliable. They are very good at headlines and very poor on timely delivery.
“But we are not letting this go.
"We are quite prepared to have a look at anything, but the Government has to now put something on the table.”
A Government spokesperson replied: “We want to see more areas with a high-profile, directly elected leader who will be accountable to local people and act as a champion for their areas.
“We are keen to work together with local leaders in the region to regenerate its cities and towns, boost people’s earnings and tackle local issues.”