A decade ago, on November 4, 2004, the 1,899,742 North East people who were eligible to vote, had the opportunity to take part in a referendum on the devolution to an elected assembly of ‘a range of activities currently carried out by mainly government bodies.’
Out of the 906,376 (47.71%) of us who took part, 696,519 people, 77.93% of those who cast a vote said a resounding ‘No’ to the proposal. Many of us will recall the inflatable white elephant successfully deployed by the ‘No’ campaign to argue that another layer of government, featuring the same people and parties already in power in the region was unnecessary.
No one, least of all those of us who support devolution should have been surprised by the result. In fact the overwhelming defeat of the ‘Yes’ campaign reflected a similar crushing defeat suffered by the ‘Yes’ campaign in Wales, a place similar in many ways to the North East, in 1979.
However, by 2004, those who were licking their voter- inflicted wounds in the North East might have taken heart from the Welsh who had learned the lessons from their defeat, rebuilt their pro-devolution argument and won a second referendum in 1997.
Things have been different in North East England. Without any further referendum or any direct elections taking place, last year seven out of 12 North East local authorities – Northumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham gained the support of the Government to legally establish the North East Combined Authority (NECA).
At a time of cuts to services and jobs the NECA has a budget of some £89m, partly funded by the local authorities and is run by the self-styled Leadership Board, chaired by the leader of Durham County Council and consisting of the elected Mayor of North Tyneside, the leaders of the other councils and the entirely unelected chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership.
Some of us have smiled at the pretensions of the 7/12ths ‘North East’ Combined Authority, at the hubris of a ‘North East Leadership Board’ consisting of people who were never elected to these positions and who are wholly unaccountable for these functions to those whom they purport to ‘lead’.
However there is clearly sense in local authorities working together, sharing services, making efficiency savings, especially at times like these.
Now, though, we are beginning to see that our ‘leaders’ have greater ambitions.
Over the period from March 12 in Gateshead to March 26 in Northumberland each of the seven local authorities have already held or are holding poorly publicised meetings to explain to some their “negotiations with government for a substantial devolution of power, funding and responsibilities.”
Any of us might take heart from their hopes for a North East Investment Fund, a Housing Investment Fund, investment plans for transport infrastructure, a fully devolved Work Programme. I would never dispute that there are good intentions involved. However, our ‘leaders’ are utterly wrong. The ends do not justify the means.
In seeking to compete with the likes of Greater Manchester and Sheffield the NECA and its Leadership Board have conveniently overlooked that, unlike those places, our region has had a referendum. In seeking to acquire powers carried out mainly by central government, this extra layer of the Combined Authority and Leadership Board is flying in the face of the referendum result. Eight people have decided that they know better than 696,519.
There are those who will argue that precisely because the NECA is appointed rather than being an ‘elected assembly’, their proposal is somehow different.
I will simply say that the establishment of an extra layer of devolved government featuring the same people and parties currently in power without any further referendum or election is an undemocratic outrage tantamount to a fraud on the North East electorate.
Over the last 13 years people from our armed forces have died in their hundreds fighting to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Back in the North East others have clearly been conniving to undermine the democracy of the 2004 referendum by stealth.
The best approach when democracy is under attack is to invest in another vote.
Before the devolution proposals of the North East Combined Authority and the plans of the five Teesside councils for a similar body take another step forward, they should be put to a further referendum of North East people. A second question on the ballot paper should ask us whether we want our leaders to be directly accountable to us or not.
This is not toytown politics where a few cronies get together to fix who is going to sit on some plum committee; it’s about our country, our democracy, our pride in living where we do and being who we are.
Over the next few weeks every single one of us can help support democracy in North East England by checking whether those who come seeking our vote will support a second referendum.
If they won’t, let’s turn May 7 into a referendum on the referendum. Rather than ticking any box just write Referendum across the ballot paper, then our ‘leaders’ will listen.
Hilton Dawson is chairman of the North East Party.