Eric Pickles promises devolution package for North East soon

North East combined authority has drawn up ambitious devolution proposals but agreement is unlikely before the election

PA Wire Eric Pickles
Eric Pickles

A devolution package for the North East could be agreed soon, Ministers have insisted.

But it is unlikely anything could be confirmed until after the General Election on May 7.

And North East leaders are keen to ensure the region benefits from a major package of measures to create jobs, boost business and improve transport links - after Chancellor George Osborne announced he was only willing to offer a limited package of measures for West Yorkshire.

The North East Combined Authority, which brings together the councils serving County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland, is carrying out a consultation into its own devolution plans.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said: “We created a combined authority for Newcastle last year, which I understand is flourishing.

“Indeed, I anticipate that it will be the beneficiary of more devolution in the not-too-distant future.”

The Yorkshire deal was part of Mr Osborne’s Budget announcement on March 18, but council leaders in West Yorkshire described it as “disappointing” and said it fell well short of a generous package offered to Greater Manchester.

By contrast, Ministers announced a deal with Greater Manchester in November which gave the local combined authority control of a new £300 million Housing Investment Fund, and control of funding to build a £450 million light rail extension. Local councils and health groups will also take control of the £6 billion health and social care budget.

The Combined Authority has held a series of public meetings to discuss its plans, and events are taking place in North Tyneside and Northumberland this week. It is also inviting people to take part in the consultation through a survey on its websites.

While proposals could change as a result of the consultation, the key requests the Combined Authority currently plans to make include:

  • Creating a North East Investment Fund, giving the region a single fund to spend on economic development, transport and regeneration priorities over 10 years so the region can set its own priorities and plan for the long term

  • Giving the Combined Authority more control over around £500m in funding from the European Union.

  • Giving the region control over properties and land currently managed by the Homes and Communities Agency, a national agency.

  • Investment in roads and rail, and for regional transport body Transport North East to take responsibility for public transport

  • Investment in connections to Newcastle International Airport

  • Control over the Work Programme in the region, so councils and local businesses can work together to ensure the programme is getting people into jobs

  • Control of skills funding, to ensure young people and others are taught the skills local industry needs

  • Control over the work in the North East of bodies designed to help business, such as a Government agency which helps firms export

  • More powers to attract tourists to the North East.

Durham Council leader Simon Henig
Durham Council leader Simon Henig

Coun Simon Henig, Chair of the North East Combined Authority and leader of Durham County Council, said: “We have been in a series of stakeholders to make sure we know that when we talk to Government we have the business community and wider community behind us.

“We’ve also met MPs and members of the House of Lords last week.”

He added: “There has been a lot of support for the position we have set out.”

With Parliament due to break up on March 26 and the full election campaign beginning on March 30, an agreement before polling day will not be possible.

But Coun Henig said the authority had been keen to ensure its plans were right and had widespread support, rather than rushing them.

One question the Combined Authority could face is whether to create a directly-elected mayor for the region - which seems to be a condition for a major devolution package as far as Mr Osborne is concerned.

Labour says it will not require combined authorities to create mayors.

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