Devolution deal has 'no agreement' - says council chief following North of Tyne Mayor's claims

A massive devolution deal to reunite North East councils under a new elected mayor is “nowhere near done”, baffled council leaders have insisted.

Wednesday, 7th July 2021, 5:55 pm
Sunderland City Council leader Coun Graeme Miller, who is chairman of the North East Combined Authority.
Sunderland City Council leader Coun Graeme Miller, who is chairman of the North East Combined Authority.

North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll claimed on Tuesday that there was a package “on the table” that could see seven local councils on either side of the Tyne brought back together after an acrimonious split.

But those comments have caused consternation south of the river, where leaders are adamant that they have not signed up to any such arrangement yet – though they are open to the prospect.

Graeme Miller leader of Sunderland City Council, said a new devolution deal is “some way off” and that the mayor did not speak on behalf of councils in Sunderland, South Tyneside, Gateshead, and County Durham.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll.

Previous talks over a devolution deal to create a mayoral authority covering the entire area broke down in 2016 after a split in the region’s Labour-dominated establishment, after which Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland broke away to form their own North of Tyne Combined Authority.

Mr Driscoll was elected as Labour mayor of the North of Tyne in 2019, while the four south of Tyne councils were left to continue in the North East Combined Authority (NECA) – which does not have a mayor or powers devolved by the government.

There is hope of striking a new deal that would reunite the seven under one single mayoral authority and unlock £500m of funding for desperately-needed transport upgrades, as well as other major powers and resources.

But Coun Miller, who also chairs NECA, says that suggestions that such an agreement is close to being struck are wide of the mark.

Coun Miller said: “We are looking at a deal, trying to get a deal arranged with government, but it has been difficult to do with the timetable that government has. The NECA councils will look at a deal depending on what that deal encompasses regarding powers and financial support. It may get our support.

“But Jamie Driscoll does not speak for anybody in NECA. The mayor has to remember that he only represents the three North of Tyne areas. I know he has the best of intentions, but I sometimes get the impression that he thinks he speaks for everyone when he doesn’t.”

Coun Miller added that he would “love” to reach an agreement which would see the seven councils come back together, if the right powers and money are being offered.

He said that a failure to do so would mean that the region risks losing out hundreds of millions of pounds of crucial investment, if not more.

The NECA chief added: “We nearly got it over the line before [in 2016] and people were comfortable then with the idea of us having a mayor and that structure.

“I don’t think it would be an issue now, but we can’t take that for granted and we must go back and talk to the people. Within each council, we would need to talk to our members.

“It is a very complex area and sometimes it is not helpful when you are talking about things as if they are done – they are nowhere near done. There is no agreement from the seven authorities."

He added: “The government is making it clear that if we want money we need to be part of a mayoral authority. If we aren’t then we will lose out on hundreds of millions of pounds, it could actually be much more than that because if we don’t get investment then our losses will continue.

“The new Nissan gigafactory is great for the UK, for the North East, for Sunderland. But we need a much better transport infrastructure to support it.

“It is necessary to get an agreement with government on how we do this for the North East, otherwise we risk losing out on an awful lot.”

Coun Amanda Hopgood, the Lib Dem leader of Durham County Council’s new coalition administration, added: “As a new administration, we have not agreed to any deal. Indeed, we are not aware of the details of any such deal and, as such, Mr Driscoll is not speaking on behalf of County Durham.”

Mr Driscoll told the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the previous break-up of the North East’s councils was now “water under the Tyne Bridge”.

He said: “The LA7 deal is there to be done so I’ve been negotiating with the Government – there’s a deal on the table, not the finer points but the headlines are there.

“It is based on our comprehensive spending review last year which we submitted, which would cost over a period of time £2.8 billion but would create 55,000 jobs and our track record of delivering is there.

“The PAYE alone from those 55,000 jobs would pay the deal back in something like four or five years and that’s on top of all of the savings, as we know, you get more people into work, you get health benefits.

“The deal is a start for the north of Tyne but I would far rather see us united as a region.”