North East super council back on the cards as leaders hold peace talks

Sunderland agrees to ask Government for new law to merge some council roles after council leaders met in peace talks

Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland are set to combine in the new authority
Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland are set to combine in the new authority

A North East super council is back on track after city leaders hammered out peace talks.

Seven council leaders from Northumberland down to Durham will now go ahead and ask Government to pass a new law in April merging transport and job creation roles.

The new combined authority will not see any local councils axed, but will see major decision making powers controlled by just seven leaders.

The Government-backed process had been dramatically halted when Sunderland Council leader Paul Watson told ministers to pause and rethink plans amid fears councils across the region would lose out to Newcastle.

Now, Sunderland has said it is prepared to let plans for a combined authority covering more than one million people get the go ahead.

The last two weeks have seen a series of meetings each lasting several hours in which the seven leaders, and sometimes their chief executives, have sought to go over the assurances needed to rescue the plans.

Amid accusations from the Liberal Democrats that Labour infighting would cost the region in terms of devolved powers, the seven Labour leaders eventually agreed that any future combined authority will have a “fairness principle” built into it to ensure Newcastle does not dominate investment opportunities.

Mr Watson had told other leaders he could not back a new organisation which had no clear rules to it, while South Tyneside leader Iain Malcolm had raised concerns about the ambition behind the plans.

Now, with support for a new agreement from Mr Malcolm, Sunderland’s leader has told Government the city is prepared to back the authority.

In a statement released last night, Mr Watson said: “It’s been clear for some time that although residents, businesses and partners could see benefits in being part of the Combined Authority, they needed reassurance that Sunderland would not be disadvantaged in any way – particularly in relation to economic investment. This reflected the city council’s own views.

“Because of this and the fact that the Local Authority 7 hadn’t been able to put some of the essential building blocks in place ahead of the response deadline, I felt the right and responsible thing to do was to ask Government for more time to resolve these fundamental issues before a Combined Authority could be established.

“Having made good progress with colleagues locally on the outstanding issues around the Combined Authority and with Government colleagues – providing local people with the necessary confidence that investment will happen in Sunderland as part of the wider region’s economic development - I am now comfortable to recommend to Government that we move ahead with the establishment of the Combined Authority.”

The crunch meeting came on Tuesday when leaders gathered in Durham, where county council leader Simon Henig is set to lead the new authority for its first two years.

Mr Henig told the Journal: “This is clearly a very welcome development. We have had several meetings with the leaders and mayor of the seven councils over the last two weeks and we are committed to working together to make the most of this opportunity for the area.

“I hope now that the Government will confirm their intention of laying the necessary legislation before Parliament.

“Can I once again thank all of those who have supported the creation of the Combined Authority from the community, our partners and , particularly, the business community.”

Those leaders will now await feedback from the Department of Communities and Local Government, which had indicated it would set up a North East combined authority this April.

The UK’s only current combined authority is in Greater Manchester, where 10 councils share various job creation roles.

In exchange Government has awarded them cash and favourable treatment when it comes to devolving transport powers and securing Whitehall support for inward investment.

Journalists

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