The Tees Valley Combined Authority is in talks with the government about extending its original devolution deal in a bid to speed up the delivery of new homes, managing director Andrew Lewis has revealed.
In an interview with LGC, Mr Lewis said talks with government are centred on proposals aimed at boosting the region’s economy. One of the main proposals is for the combined authority to develop an investment partnership with the Homes and Communities Agency.
At the moment registered social landlords submit individual bids to the HCA and get allocated funds. Instead, Tees Valley wants to secure a place-based settlement for the region over an extended period of time.
While Mr Lewis told LGC the combined authority had “drawn a blank” with government at the prospect of gaining full control of the grant, it is seeking to work in partnership with the HCA and housing providers to gain greater flexibility over the way funds are invested and used to develop brownfield and industrial sites, and at a faster rate.
Mr Lewis acknowledged the proposal was “not the purest form of devolution but more of a partnership” . He added: “We’re in discussions now and met the secretary of state on that subject and he’s said he’s open to further progress on that.”
Meanwhile, the combined authority is also in early discussions with ministers about how it can further tackle unemployment in the region.
“We’re looking for a delivery partnership supporting people who are distant from the labour market,” Mr Lewis said.
Since gaining control of the apprenticeship grant for employers last August, the combined authority has already helped nearly 500 people aged between 16 and 24 find work.
The region is also discussing with government how, through the industrial strategy, it can develop green technologies to capture and use carbon emissions, for example to heat public buildings.
Labour’s Sue Jeffrey, who as leader of Redcar & Cleveland BC has been involved in devolution discussions since the beginning, is favourite to become the region’s first mayor in May. This is in contrast to other areas where Labour is expected to win which have attracted parliamentarians to the candidacy, raising the profile of the contests nationally.
Mr Lewis said: “We’ve been described by some as the dark horse of devolution which is quite a nice title to have in some respects.
“Other places have higher visibility but in terms of getting on with things we feel like we’re in a good place.”
Mr Lewis said Tees Valley was “comfortable” pursuing devolved powers incrementally rather than an all-encompassing deal.
While the region will “take stock” once a mayor is elected on 4 May, Mr Lewis said the combined authority was “not at this stage talking about extending into public service reform, health, or policing”.
The combined authority is also in the process of setting up a mayoral development corporation to lead the regeneration of the South Tees site where the steelworks at Redcar closed in 2015. Mr Lewis said this would be the first mayoral development corporation to be formally established outside London, even though Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Sheffield City Region, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and West of England have similar commitments included in their devolution deals.
A shadow board including members of the combined authority, as well as business and education leaders, has already been established.
In a bid to address criticisms that mayoral development corporations lack accountability, it is proposed the mayor, once in post, will chair the board.
The combined authority also decides which powers it will delegate to the corporation but will only be able to do so with the full agreement of the council in the area in which it will be operating.
Mr Lewis said the fact the corporation is “embedded” into the combined authority means it should counteract concerns the body could focus solely on the specific site, rather than considering the wider impact on the region.
Last month the combined authority also secured £3.2m funding from government to encourage more people to cycle, walk and use public transport. The region received the third largest allocation from the £64m funding pot.
It has already been decided that the money will be used to provide information, training, support and, in some cases, equipment to help people travel to employment, training, education, health, retail and leisure facilities by foot, bicycle, bus and train.
In addition to this, the combined authority has set aside £8m to improve walking and cycling networks, and access to bus and rail networks.