County Durham wants to join a multi-billion pound devolution deal to establish a new North East mayor.
After being set a mid-October deadline by ministers to make up their mind, the county council’s coalition administration confirmed on Friday that they want to be part of a region-wide agreement – but they might yet find their route blocked by other council leaders.
If approved, the deal would see a new mayor elected in May 2024 to govern a huge combined authority stretching across seven council areas through Northumberland, Tyneside, Wearside, and County Durham.
The authority would be granted major new funding and powers held by other parts of England but not currently in the North East, including critical decision-making powers on transport that could lead to the region’s bus services being brought under public control.
However, it is thought that Durham is not yet guaranteed a place in the devolution deal – with local party politics still a potential stumbling block.
Durham’s entry to the deal would need the agreement of the region’s other council leaders, some of whom are rumoured to have reservations.
Negotiations have been taking place for several months over a devolution deal that would be worth more than £3bn across 30 years.
It had been thought that the package would cover Northumberland, Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, North Tyneside, and South Tyneside – with a final draft of a potential ‘LA6’ deal having been agreed with the government.
But Durham, which had also been pursuing the prospect of a single county devolution deal proposed by Boris Johnson last year, was offered a final chance to join its northern neighbours by former levelling up secretary Greg Clark – an option that, despite fierce opposition from Labour MPs and opposition councillors, the county’s Lib Dem, Tory, and independent coalition has now decided to take.
It is understood that the government is willing to uplift the per capita value of the combined authority’s investment fund to account for the population of County Durham being added, taking it from £35m per year to £47m.
But Labour leaders at the Tyne and Wear councils are now left with a decision on whether to allow the coalition-led Durham to join with them, or stand with the Durham Labour figureheads who have vehemently opposed the idea in recent weeks.
Durham Council leader Amanda Hopgood said: “As requested by the Government, we have sent a letter to the Secretary of State to confirm that in principle, we have decided to join the LA6 deal along with the other local authorities in the North East, and agree an LA7 devolution arrangement.
“We now look forward to working with colleagues to deliver a devolution deal that will benefit residents throughout the region.
“This approach makes good political and practical sense, and the regional model is also a route that has the backing of business.
“A wider deal will benefit from adding volume to a louder North East voice.
“There will now be further discussions with colleagues in the North East and government.”
Cllr Carl Marshall, the Labour opposition leader in Durham, claimed that Durham could get an extra £140m in transport funding by going for a county deal and said the county risked missing a “once in as generation opportunity to become masters of our own destiny”.
He added: “In a lengthy list of shameful regressive decisions from the shambolic Coalition running Durham County Council, this is perhaps the worst. “
The new £3bn devolution settlement could grant the North East the “full suite of powers” already available to mayors in other parts of England that boast more substantial devolution deals than the North of Tyne.
That would include the ability to bring bus services back into public control and set their ticket fares at cheaper levels, a £900m transport funding package up to 2027, a yearly £44m budget for adult education and skills, and “major steps” towards the North East reaching net zero emissions.
The mayor’s role could also be merged with that of the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner – though this will not happen if Durham is involved, as the two jobs would no longer cover the same geographic areas.
A previous devolution deal that would have covered all seven of the North East council areas broke down in 2016 amid political rows between the region’s Labour-run councils. Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland subsequently broke away to form their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA).
Labour’s North of Tyne mayor, Jamie Driscoll, urged the region’s leaders to come together and make sure a deal gets done this time.
Mr Driscoll said: “The North of Tyne has shown how successful devolution can be. We have a city, suburban areas, towns, villages, rural areas and it works great.
“This is a decision for all of our local councils, including Durham, but if we can come together as a region I think that would be a great signal because we all want a successful North East.”