1. Governance
September 7, 2016

The North East of England may have just given up on getting a devolution deal

By Jonn Elledge

Oh, well, this is just great. From the BBC:

Plans for a North East regional mayor have been put on hold after local authorities expressed fears over post-Brexit funding from the government.


Sunderland, Durham, Gateshead and South Tyneside councils voted against moving forward with the devolution plan, claiming they were not satisfied with reassurances over funding following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland councils said they remain committed to the plan.

What exactly this means – for Newcastle, the North East, or for devolution more broadly – will take some time to unpick. But we’re impatient, so in the mean time here are four quick thoughts.

Devolution to the North East is basically cursed.

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This is actually the second time a deal on this geography has collapsed. The last Labour government’s big idea for English devolution was to do it by region. London, after all, is an official government region; most of the English regions have populations comparable to those of the three Celtic countries.

So, in 2004, the government held a referendum to ask if the North East should have its own regional assembly. Here was the result:

That, for the maths whizzes, is a victory of nearly four to one for the no campaign.

Some years later, the coalition government decided to launch its own devolution scheme based largely on city regions. But the deal that emerged in the North East didn’t just cover the Newcastle/Sunderland conurbation: it covered their rural hinterlands, too.

In other words, it covered the same region that had already rejected devolution once, only with a mayoralty instead of an assembly, without Teeside, and without the nicety of a public vote.

So, that’s gone well.

There’s a very clear geographical division.

Broadly, the north side of the Tyne that was historically Northumberland is in favour of the deal; the south side, which was historically County Durham, isn’t.

Green is yes, red is now. 

Whether this is meaningful or not I have no idea. Interesting though, eh?

There’s not a very clear economic division.

The north east is not an economically integrated region in the manner of Greater London is, or even Greater Manchester: in terms of both cultural identity and economic status, Sunderland remains a very different place to Newcastle.

In some ways this is odd. The conurbation does have a reasonable well developed metro network which should make it easy to commute between its various major centres. Nonetheless it’s clear from this recent piece of research by Alasdair Rae at the University of Sheffield that this isn’t happening to the extent that it might:

While Sunderland is arguably a separate city, though, Gateshead certainly isn’t. It’s like Salford refusing to be part of the Manchester deal. It’s just odd.

The councils south of the Tyne might be playing poker without any cards.

What the recalcitrant councils’ end game is here is not exactly clear. The obvious reading is that they’re after a better deal.

The government has said the door remains open – and there have been reports that Theresa May was less enamoured by forcing metro mayors on cities than her predecessor. This is no doubt, in part, a recognition that introducing metro mayors was a policy likely to give a struggling Labour party an alternative power base which, for obvious reasons, a Tory government would rather not do.

That said, it’s not clear the May government will have the same enthusiasm as its predecessor for English devolution. Brexit means that ministers will have more than enough difficult negotiations with people who don’t like them very much on their plate already, thank you very much.

Devolution was George Osborne’s baby. With him out of government, it’s not altogether clear that ministers will stick their necks out for the north east. There is at least a chance this is the end of the road.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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