North East councils to merge roles in bid for more power

Seven North East councils have agreed to merge their economic roles – and urged ministers to back up their efforts “with hard cash”

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes

Seven North East councils have agreed to merge their economic roles – and urged ministers to back up their efforts “with hard cash”.

Across the region yesterday, council leaders from Northumberland down to Durham met with their individual cabinets and agreed to create a new, legally-binding authority in charge of transport, skills funding and economic growth.

All the councils involved will still exist as local authorities, with bin collections, social services and leisure services among the many functions unaffected by the decision.

But the move represents an historic change in how the North East is governed, with decisions concerning, for example, bus funding in Berwick, now being taken by council leaders from as far away as Gateshead and Durham.

Local authority leaders say they have no choice but to follow the move if they wish to benefit from the Government’s intention to hand over a say in how billions of pounds of Whitehall cash is spent.

The UK’s only current combined authority, Greater Manchester, already enjoys a bigger say over funding, such as the money behind adult education.

Businesses and councils in the North East fear that with Sheffield and Leeds also pushing for combined authority status, the region will miss out on job-creating cash if the seven councils continued to compete against each other rather than working together. Officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government are believed to have told Newcastle City council that at present the problem is that “there is nothing to devolve to”.

Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes was among those welcoming the new structure yesterday.

He said: “We have done our part by agreeing to work together. The Spending Review this week is the first chance to see if the Government is serious about backing us.

“That includes the chance to help us with capital investment and we now await to see if the Government will follow up its verbal commitment to the region by devolving real hard cash.”

South Tyneside council leader Iain Malcolm is seen as the frontrunner to be named as the first chair of the new authority, with Sunderland believed to be making clear it would back the Labour leader.

Mr Malcolm told The Journal that there was “no new bureaucracy here,” with councils instead “streamlining existing services to make sure we are working together rather than competing.”

“What we have instead,” the council leader said, “is an historic decision to work together which offers the same potential for change as Nissan coming here 30 years ago did. I really do believe that.

“If Government back us by devolving responsibility to us, as they have said they will, we can make the big decisions here rather than being on the phone to Whitehall all the time, giving us much more say over, for example, expanding the Metro.”

The next step sees the seven authorities agree the moves at full council then send to the Government a document setting out the legal changes needed.

Ministers have indicated they will formally create the new authority by April 2014, though many of the functions will start being shared before then.

Page 2 - Questions and answers >>

Questions and answers

THE creation of a combined authority raises as many questions than it answers. Here we look at some of the basic issues.

Q Who is involved?

A Northumberland, Durham, Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, North Tyneside and South Tyneside.

Q What happened at the seven councils yesterday?

A All the leaders got all their cabinets to agree the councils will merge key roles with the creation of a combined authority to cover – initially – skills, transport and growth.

Q Will there be one council for the North East?

A No, not even close. Your bins will still be collected by your current council, you’ll still pay them council tax.

Q How will I notice the difference?

A If you’re not a firm looking to bring jobs to the region, a college looking to train its workforce or a transport company looking to run the buses, you probably won’t notice anything.

Q What’s the benefit?

A Money. The current Government may have scrapped all the structures that made up a regional voice, but more than any other government for the last 30 years it seems committed to handing locally-elected leaders a bigger say over public cash.

Q I thought the Government was cutting spending?

A It is. A combined authority would simply seek a greater say over existing Government funds rather than request additional cash.

Q Is this just another Tyne and Wear County Council?

A No. You will not elect someone on to this board. It is, in a sense, a way of letting councils leaders agree some areas of investment and let those decisions be legally binding.

Q I voted against the North East Assembly, is this just that in disguise?

A No. You are not electing another level of politicians and officers. The existing ones will simply agree to work together on big issues.

Q How does this fit in the NEvolution campaign?

A The decision to formally request that the Government approve a combined authority lays the foundations for much that the region is asking for. Without a combined authority, success would be far more difficult.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer