Iain Malcolm: The combined authority can not only be stronger - it can be bigger

South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm welcomes Labour's plans for combined authorities and says we should invite Teesside to join us

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Labour leader Ed Miliband
Labour leader Ed Miliband

I am immensely proud that Ed Miliband seized the opportunity yesterday to pledge to devolve more decision making to the regions, and I am delighted that he wants to work within the existing Combined Authority structure that we have already created in the North East.

Like Lord Beecham, I agree that devolution shouldn’t be about creating new structures and hierarchy but about further developing the already established Combined Authority to bring funding to our region. That way we can make sure we can make a difference to the lives of people living and working in the North East

Our region is well placed to maximise the benefits of greater devolved powers and resources - we are ahead of the game having established the North East Combined Authority back in April, the work of which is already making progress.

Only last week the Combined Authority took the decision to submit proposals for the introduction of a Quality Contract Scheme for consideration by the national QCS Board.

The move could signal the biggest changes to the way buses operate across the region since de-regulation in the 1980s and is a clear example of us taking action as a region to safeguard public transport for the future.

Devolution can help us go further - giving Combined Authorities a say on issues such as transport, health and skills means that we can help create better outcomes for the people of our region.

The benefit of having devolved funding, powers and responsibilities from central Government is that local decisions can be based on local knowledge.

We can be in charge of our own destiny and work to maximise the region’s potential. For far too long we have been at the hands of Whitehall and its unfair distribution of funding and resources.

We can create the right infrastructure for growth and prosperity. What we need is much greater control over resources so that we can tackle some of the most challenging problems head on - whether that be keeping elderly people out of hospital, or helping young people into work.

As local authorities we have proven that we can be truly innovative in our approach and achieve real results. The public and private sectors in the North East have shown that we have a winning formula of partnership working. Newcastle Airport is just one example of this. This week we announced that Newcastle’s first scheduled trans-Atlantic nonstop service will start in May 2015. The announcement marks the culmination of hard work and determination across both the public and private sectors to further enhance regional connectivity, grow the regional economy, attract inward investment and encourage inbound tourism from North America.

We have had plenty of experience of designing local solutions and taking an innovative approach. We would hope that initiatives like the North East Development and Investment Fund – which will align public and private sector resources to leverage investment – can be supported to further accelerate local growth.

The Combined Authority provides the opportunity for devolved responsibilities as well as introducing clear lines of accountability for national bodies like the Highways Agency.

Devolution can give us more say in areas such as the commissioning and performance management of DWP contracts; developing the HCA portfolio to accelerate development in local and HCA sites through the North East Development Fund; and having a greater role in the 2015/18 Affordable Housing Programme to determine which bids meet regional and local priorities, with the aim to directly influence the post-2018 national housing investment programme.

All of these things have a direct effect on the lives of people living in our region. Every region is different and every region needs its own set of objectives that together will make UK Plc a truly prosperous nation.

We must see devolution as more than just ‘more power’ but instead about creating opportunities – for business, for residents, import, export, integration, infrastructure and much more.

We have to make the Combined Authority work and that means more funding being devolved to it. IPPR’s recent survey which found that 39% of people living in England believed local authorities should have more powers, and that trust in local councils (64%) was almost twice as high as trust in Parliament (36%). Local people trust us to deliver - all we want now is the tools to do the job.

That’s why I want to go even further and would urge a conversation between the North East Combined Authority and the five Tees Valley councils about creating One Combined Authority covering an area from the Scottish Border to North Yorkshire.

A Combined Authority of that size, working together with the new powers given by a Labour Government would be truly visionary for our region.

  • Iain Malcolm is Leader of South Tyneside Council

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