On December 28th came news of a late Christmas present to the people of the North East. Those living in Northumberland, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham are to have a directly elected Mayor. Before they all cheer too loudly though, there will also be “power for the Mayor to set a precept on council tax to fund mayoral functions and the power to charge a business rate supplement (subject to ballot.) ”
Also promised is a “new North East Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) with more than £1.4 billion over the next 30 years which will enable the new Mayor and the councils to plan for the long term, with certainty, and unlock the benefits of devolution for the two million people living in the area.” But it is not entirely clear whether any of this is extra money – or funding that would have been spent in the region anyway – but the decision on what it will be spent on will be decided locally rather than in Whitehall.
We are told that “the North East Mayoral Combined Authority will be the lead local authority for the planning and delivery of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund from 2025/26.” That doesn’t mean that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will be any bigger or that the North East will get a larger share. A “North East Investment Fund” will “have £48 million per annum for 30 years” – this is money that the Government agrees to “allocate”. But where from? Is the money from the North East Investment Fund taken from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund? Or the magic money tree? I don’t think it can be the Geordie Tax – as that is extra money for even more spending. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, said:
“I’m proud to have agreed a historic new devolution deal with the North East that gives local leaders more power, more money, and an even greater say on how their areas are run.
“Devolution is all about letting leaders who live and breathe the region decide what is in their best interests, for their people and for their businesses.
“A new mayor will ensure local priorities in the North East are at the heart of decision-making, while our billion-pound funding boost will provide the financial certainty needed to level up the area right now and for years to come.”
The text of the devolution deal states that the new Mayor will have the power “to improve and better integrate local transport, including the ability to introduce bus franchising, control of appropriate local transport functions e.g., local transport plans, and control of a key route network.” There will also be “devolution of adult education functions and the core adult education budget, as well as input into the new local skills improvement plans.”
Directly elected metro mayors can attract considerable attention from the media as regional “leaders” – but the amount of power they have varies considerably. That of the North East Mayor will be relatively limited. Devolving power is a sensible concept as it enhances local democracy and accountability. But rather than a gimmicky new layer of Government, it would have been better to adopt a rather more localist approach of handing powers to existing local authorities. Why not let Gateshead Council be responsible for the adult education budget in Gateshead? Or Sunderland Council decide where to locate the bus stops in Sunderland? Or Northumberland Council to decide what road improvements in Northumberland should be given priority?
Handing over the current funding and responsibility for a particular service to an established local authority would at least allow the possibility to achieve savings and lower the tax level. With a precept from a Metro Mayor the only question is how much extra tax will be imposed.
The Government might retort that the seven local authorities to be covered by the North East Mayoral Combined Authority are all supportive. But that is no surprise. It is the only deal on offer. Those seven local authorities will not lose any of their existing powers. Best of all, the North East Mayoral Combined Authority means lots of new committees with representation for councillors from each of those seven local authorities. New committees mean new allowances – rather a lot of money for rather a small number of meetings. Councillors signing up to the deal is rather less of a mystery than where the money is coming from.