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Ideas & Observations

A step in the right direction

It was rather fitting the North East devolution deal was unveiled amid speculation around Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s choice of healthcare.

After all, the region has been saying for years it could do with a spoonful of something from Westminster to ease its ails.

The £1.4 billion proposal – teased, to great cheers, by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt during his Autumn Statement, and then rather surprisingly revealed in the tumbleweed days between Christmas and the new year – promises fresh powers across education, housing and transport.

They will, according to the blueprint, be overseen by a new mayor, who will control an annual £48 million kitty across 30 years.

Going further still, ‘levelling-up’ minister Michael Gove, back for another spin of the devolution wheel, says it will deliver “significant private sector leverage, accelerate rural growth and amplify the region’s global assets”, his latter point cherry-picking Nissan, Sedgefield’s NETPark and the ports of Blyth, Sunderland and Tyne as key catalysts.

To make it happen, both the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) – which covers Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – and the North East Combined Authority (NECA) – the body spread across Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – would be scrapped, with a mayoral election earmarked for May next year.

And for the sake of simplicity, if nothing else, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The North East region – rightly – talks a lot about its industrial prowess (raising its voice a little more would do no harm, but that’s a conversation for another day…) and of how the legacies of yesteryear continue to drive the innovation of tomorrow.

Yet for all the discourse, the area has for a while felt somewhat disconnected.

We live in the North East, so, by definition, we should be presenting outwardly as the North East.

But with the advent of the NTCA and the NECA, not to mention the twice-elected Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen – who continues to benefit from Government support to redevelop Redcar’s steelworks and put life into what had practically become a dormant Teesside International Airport – a slightly confusing picture has been drawn.

And if puzzling internally, then imagine the head-scratching by potential investors and backers from further afield and overseas.

Indeed, a recent North East Times Magazine roundtable discussion about the ‘levelling-up’ agenda highlighted such, warning the region must shed its “sub-divides” to thrive in the global race.

So from that perspective, the devolution deal has the potential to better fuse the region.

And history shows cohesivity is important.

Remember back in 2016, when then Chancellor George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse clanked and missed a gear when he couldn’t thrash out a deal with council chiefs over a previous devolution plan?

This time the narrative sounds more positive – indeed most leaders have reacted in ways which could be collectively grouped under that wonderfully commercial sector-focused buzz phrase cautious optimism.

But within the positivity comes no little veiled warning the new deal isn’t a complete panacea.

Beset by years of austerity cuts, local authorities have faced a constant battle to prioritise services, which officials have been quick to warn will not be solved by the devolution bill, certainly if budgets continue to be slashed.

And that is important.

Because for the region to truly thrive, and to benefit from the measures set out by the Government, its devolution deal needs to be matched by wider structural support.

As Stephen Patterson, chief executive at Newcastle business improvement district company NE1, said following Westminster’s announcement: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

And he’s absolutely right.

The region won’t suddenly wake up the morning after powers have been transferred to sunshine and unprecedented growth.

But it will at least have some additional chess pieces to move across the board, which, if played in the right way, will have great potential to give the region the step-change it so craves.