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Devolution deal - do you want it, how effective will it be?

January 15, 2018 7:02 PM

Liberal Democrats councillors have expressed a range of concerns about the proposed North of Tyne Devolution Deal - despite outrageous over-hyping by the Labour Party, can it deliver what the region - and particularly Newcastle - need.

Cllr Greg Stone reminded the City Council of the Leader's comments in 2011, shortly before he assumed his current position, that "quote" only he could deliver the best deal for Newcastle by working more effectively with other Labour leaders on Tyneside.

"What would Cllr Forbes have said about this Deal if he were still Leader of the Opposition. It is not unreasonable to ask whether this Deal is going to deliver a brave new world, given that we heard the same rhetoric when the NE Combined Authority (NECA) was established. I don't think even the Leader believes that the NE Combined Authority has been a success. He certainly isn't willing to confirm he thinks that the NE Combined Authority is fit for purpose. The big question he has to address is why he is confident that this time it will be different.

I want to make it very clear that the Liberal Democrats are strongly supportive of devolution, providing that powers and resources available are adequate and fit for purpose.

We agree that many of the priorities of the proposed Deal are important and are ones which we support and welcome - the education improvement challenge, brownfield regeneration fund, scale-up programme, skills and employability. We are of course fully supportive of additional funding.

However, it is undeniable that the Deal on the table excludes the more significant powers offered to other Mayoral City-Regions, particularly in respect of health and social care and on transport.

This disparity will result in our area being left further behind by other Northern city-regions who are taking advantage of these powers to increase their competitiveness and prosperity. We are concerned that it will lead to a situation where the North of Tyne is competing with the South of Tyne and Tees Valley for resources and investment. That is not obviously in the interests of our region.

We also think it is a cause of huge regret that the Deal fails to include Gateshead. We think that a city-region devolution deal which divides Newcastle and Gateshead is fundamentally flawed. The Centre for Cities, an avowed supporter of mayoral authorities, suggests that "the geography of the new deal is far from ideal".

There has been no huge public clamour for this. There is no public mandate for this. Doubts have been expressed on whether the new arrangements will work or indeed whether they are valid.

This process - for better or for worse - has been conducted behind closed doors by council leaders and Government ministers. Members of the City Council have not had opportunity to comment on this issue until last. We owe it to the citizens we represent to scrutinise this Deal and above all to confirm that it is fit for purpose before we endorse it.

So is the Deal is fit for purpose and compliant with statute?

I hope that many have read the article by Professor John Tomaney in the Journal on the Deal's limitations and why he feels it may not be legally compliant with statute. :

"It is not the product of any logic of rational local government, more effective economic development, or underlying local identity. Rather it is the outcome of a pressing need for another devolution deal, albeit one that does not meet the government's own criteria of likely success".

In light of the issues raised by Prof Tomaney in his very well-informed article, we think it is in the public interest of the citizens of Newcastle and the best interests of the sub-region that the leader publicly states how and why he considers the Deal passes the tests on interest and identity of communities, and on effectiveness and convenience of local government, and how it will meet the criteria of success."

Cllr Robin Ashby said that the City Council needs to be certain that it is taking a sound decision that is in the best long term interests of the North of Tyne area. "We are being told that this is the only show in town and instructed we must like it or lump it - even though in their hearts, the protagonists of the Deal know that what is on offer is less than perfect.

There are few people better qualified to comment on devolution in this part of the world than Professor John Tomaney. He led Newcastle University's CURDS centre for urban and regional development. He was the chair of the campaign for a regional assembly at the 2004 regional referendum. He is eminently qualified to express an expert view. Many people reading his article will, if they are honest with themselves, feel he expresses some home truths.

It is worth recapping some of his main points.

He finds that the proposed deal "does not meet the government's own definition of appropriate devolution arrangements".

He finds that the North of Tyne deal "does not appear to meet the legal criteria for establishing a Combined Authority set out in section 110 of the 2009 Local Democracy and Economic Development Act.

He observes that "North of Tyne will command less legitimacy and weight in their own area as well as with the other metro mayors and national government."

He concludes "Why did local [Labour] politicians agree to the deal? The case for devolution is strong in principle but what is on offer is the thinnest gruel . The local apologists for the deal express the hope that agreeing to a constrained deal will lead others to come on board. There is a good chance that the North of Tyne will discredit the case for devolution, confusing the public, adding complexity to urban governance, and delivering few noticeable material improvements. "

The concerns he identifies are pertinent ones for the council to consider tonight. There is in our view no clear evidence that the proposals demonstrate they reflect the interests and identities of local communities, or that they secure effective and convenient local government. The proposals will require the creation of additional governance arrangements on transport and on the LEP. They will not be more effective or convenient. They are not widely supported by the public.

Given these concerns, it would be responsible and proper for the Council to disclose the advice it has received on these points, if any. If none exists, we believe it must urgently seek expert opinion on this issue.

It is reasonable to hold the view that the Deal is a small step forward and its principle can be supported, but it would be irresponsible not to ensure these concerns are publicly addressed and the statutory basis of the decision confirmed. The very existence of the Governance Review suggests that the parties involved are conscious that the Deal leaves a lot of complexities to tie up.

It is legitimate to seek in Council tonight a clearer explanation of how the Deal satisfies the tests in the 2009 Act, and how the Governance Review process supports this. To do otherwise will confirm to many onlookers that the concerns expressed by Prof Tomaney are correct.

The public have doubts about this. Professor Tomaney has damningly expressed doubts about this. Council can ignore these doubts and push these proposals through, or it can address them publicly tonight and delay this decision to take heed of independent expert advice .

I suggest to the City Council that the path to wisdom and enlightenment lies in the latter, not the former. If It leads to a stronger, more robust, and more successful outcome for our area, so much the better."