By Daniel Holland LDRS
Talks over a new devolution deal for the North East are set to resume soon after Christmas, with hopes for progress on reuniting local councils either side of the Tyne.
The prospect of electing a new mayor to cover all seven councils in the region re-emerged this year, following a previous split in which Newcastle, Northumberland, and North Tyneside broke away to form their own mayoral authority in 2018.
The government is promising major investment in the region’s transport network if South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland, and County Durham can be convinced to come back on board with a devolution package covering the entire region, an idea which was abandoned in 2016 amid a bitter dispute among the region’s Labour-dominated authorities.
Jamie Driscoll, who was elected mayor of the North of Tyne region in 2019, says that negotiations are now moving forward and that getting a slice of a £4.2 billion transport funding pot represents “half a billion reasons why we should do it” – on top of the other powers and resources that could be placed into the hands of local leaders.
In September, local government minister Simon Clarke wrote to the mayor to call for talks with him and council leaders within a matter of weeks on a new devolution deal.
Mr Clarke resigned his post shortly afterwards, but a meeting was held with his replacement Luke Hall and another conversation with ministers is scheduled after the holidays.
Mr Driscoll said: “We met on I think September 23 with Luke Hall. We agreed that we would start working out what would need to be in the next devolution package.
“We are progressing from our side, I have a meeting in the diary with ministers just after Christmas, and then we will start to work it through.
“Realistically, we were hoping the devolution white paper would have been out and it is not. That is not going to be, on our expectations, until after the May elections. That is when I would expect to see us making formal decisions either way.”
Leaders south of the Tyne who had previously opposed the installation of a metro mayor have indicated that they would be open to talks about reversing that decision, most notably Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon.
Last month, council chiefs from across the region unveiled a £6 billion plan to radically overhaul the North East’s transport infrastructure.
And it is hoped that a devolution deal would kickstart that and far more – with the North of Tyne mayor’s powers currently far more limited than others in England like Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham.
Mr Driscoll added: “We are progressing with negotiations, it is still negotiations at this stage, about coming together as a wider region.
“That will include things like transport funding and connectivity, wider powers through devolution.
“Everything that gets devolved to us we do a cracking job with. To be fair, and this is true cross-party, the mayoral combined authorities are particularly good at delivering – ours is exceptional.
“We have a tiny team and we are able to get stuff done, delivered, and happening on the ground far faster than anything that goes through Whitehall.
“The more that the government devolves to us, the better it is for our people. Otherwise we just end up in a queue like the rest of the country.”