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Devolution: North-east England

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with local authorities in the North East of England about the devolution of powers.

On 6 September north-east leaders decided not to take forward their devolution deal. Although that deal cannot continue, we stand ready to work with those councils that share our aim to boost jobs, create opportunities and build a stronger northern powerhouse, and this guides our ongoing engagement with councils in the area.

My Lords, there is general agreement that the north-east needs these powers in order to deal with the region’s problems but the blockages on the road seem to be the inability of the seven Labour council leaders to agree with each other and the stubborn insistence by Ministers on the elected mayor model, putting all the power in the hands of one individual. If the way is open, as the Minister said, to further discussion, will the way also be open to some new thinking about a model for this devolution which leaves room for minority as well as majority opinion, for rural as well as urban areas, and engages everybody in something that we all agree is needed?

My Lords, the noble Lord has given distinguished service to the north-east and I agree with him about the importance of the devolution deal for the north-east. As I understand it, the blockage is not about the mayor but elsewhere, but we remain very much of the view that to get the most powers you need the best accountability, and that is delivered by directly elected mayors.

My Lords, regrettable though the failure to reach a devolution deal covering the seven members of the North East Combined Authority is, do the Government realise the significance of its member councils’ financial concerns? The offer of an investment of £30 million a year for 30 years between seven councils—£900 million in total—must be seen in the context of annual budget cuts amounting to some £1.5 billion a year, coupled with huge uncertainty about the working of the business rates system on which councils will have to rely as revenue support grant ends. Is not the best way to revive the devolution concept for the Government to recognise that devolving responsibility without the power conferred by adequate funding undermines their proclaimed objectives?

My Lords, other areas—Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley—have come to an agreement and are pursuing the need for an elected mayor. It is regrettable that the north-east is not doing so, but we do not impose these things—they are to be bottom-up—but I appeal to the north-east to come together so that we can proceed with this deal, perhaps in 2018.

My Lords, will the Minister not consider detaching the issue of elected mayors from devolution? As we warned when the Bill was going through, the devolution proposals for Norfolk and Suffolk have fallen through, mainly because a mixture of Tory councils and Labour councils were not willing to go ahead with an elected mayor. As a result, some areas, particularly in Norfolk, which are among the poorest in the country, will not get the resources or the powers they need, particularly to provide transport connectivity, because the Government are hung up—stupidly—on the concept of an elected mayor, which may make sense for London and the great conurbations but does not make sense for large parts of the eastern region.

My Lords, whatever else has been happening in the north-east, I do not think there has been a disagreement between Conservative and Labour authorities—I wish that were the case in some ways, but this has all been disagreements among Labour authorities. I remain of the view, as do the Government, that the best way to proceed, as we are in the urban areas where we need this concentration of powers, is to have somebody accountable as a mayor, just as we have in London. We have had other agreements where there is not a mayor—for example, Cornwall—but then you do not get all the necessary powers, so that is not the way forward.

My Lords, to what extent will the Government be encouraging the British Museum to move from Blythe House to the northern area, which was discussed this week?

My Lords, that was not part of my briefing so I will go back and ensure that my noble friend gets a detailed reply on it. I am afraid that I am blindsided on what, I am sure, is a key issue.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for reminding the House that budget cuts, which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, affect all councils in all mayoral combined authorities, yet other such authorities are going ahead. Does the Minister agree that there has been a serious failure of collective political leadership by the Labour Party in the north-east, in rejecting the opportunities that devolution presents when other parts of England are going ahead and taking them?

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, I do not wish to be partisan on this issue. Nevertheless, I encourage the councils of the north-east to come together because there is great merit in this deal. I think that there is a widely held view in the House about the importance of devolution in taking advantage of powers over investment, transport and adult education. They should put personal differences behind them and come together, so that we can proceed with a devolution deal which will be in the interests of the north-east.

Was it part of the Minister’s brief to check on the legislation passed in the last Parliament, which provided for referendums in 10 cities in the United Kingdom to determine whether they wanted directly elected mayors? In nine of them, when people were consulted as they have been in other referendums, they decided clearly: no, they did not want them. That included the cities of Coventry and Birmingham. If the Government are determined to persist with directly elected mayors in our region, why on earth does the Minister not at least have the consistency to acknowledge that before they can be introduced—I am opposed to their introduction—there should be a referendum, otherwise the previous referendums might as well never have been held?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that those are not combined authorities. We are not comparing like with like here. This is an issue where elected representatives, very often from Labour councils, come together to decide whether it is in the interests of their region, as they have done in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region, for example. We believe that, just as in London, we need that accountability of a mayor for devolution to work effectively in the interests of the region. That is why we are pursuing that policy.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister surprised or not that those in the Labour Party in the north-east are more interested in fighting among themselves than in representing the region as a whole?

My Lords, as I indicated, I come to this brief with a genuine belief that it is in the best interests of our great conurbations and of the north-east that this goes forward. As I said previously, I make a plea to the areas concerned to come together to proceed with this. It has to be from the grass roots up—we are not imposing this—but believe that it is very much in the interests of the people of the area.