The chair of the North East Combined Authority has told LGC he will “not stand in the way” should a formal breakaway devolution bid emerge from three of the body’s members.
The North East’s devolution deal was taken “off the table” by communities secretary Sajid Javid after the leaders of Sunderland City Council, Durham CC, and Gateshead Council and South Tyneside MBC this month decided against going out to consultation on the government’s offer which included adopting an elected mayor.
LGC understands the leaders of Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council, and Northumberland CC, who all supported the proposals, are considering opening negotiations with ministers and civil servants about a separate devolution deal just for their area.
Paul Watson (Lab), chair of the North East Combined Authority and leader of Sunderland, told LGC: “If the three of them want to go by themselves it’s incumbent on us to try and enable authorities and people to have self-determination as best we can so I wouldn’t stand in the way of that.”
However, Cllr Watson questioned whether a deal covering an economically “very important” Newcastle; Northumberland, which is in “decline and needs help”; and North Tyneside, which had “some good firms”, would be viable.
Cllr Watson claimed the “preponderance of the economic recovery” was south of the River Tyne where companies like Hitachi and Nissan were based, and pointed out that there was a major port in Sunderland.
“There’s greater capacity for an export-led recovery south of the Tyne,” said Cllr Watson.
A deal for the core city of Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland would cover a population of 808,000 people. That is similar to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (830,000) and West of England (896,000), both of which have agreed mayoral devolution deals in principle.
The Department for Communities & Local Government has indicated it is only likely to consider a devolution bid which includes proposals for strong governance, such as a mayor.
A spokesman for the department told LGC: “The government has been clear that the door remains open to any areas who want to take substantial powers and resources away from Whitehall.”
While Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland are “within their rights” to consider a breakaway bid, Cllr Watson said it would be a “long and convoluted process” if they wanted to leave the North East Combined Authority.
“That’s fine but they will need to go through that process,” said Cllr Watson.
Rather than the region dividing, Cllr Watson hoped the North East’s provisional devolution deal could be revived if ministers were willing to negotiate.
“If there’s a few adjustments to the scheme that might enable us to go out to consultation,” he said.