Regional Devolution Deal Welcomed - With Caveats

23 Feb 2023
The Tyne Bridge from the Quayside

The Government's new devolution deal for the North East should be welcomed as a starting point - but more is needed to catch up with the North West and the Midlands. This is the view of Cllr Greg Stone, in proposing a motion to Newcastle City Council on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. 

"It is in the interest of everyone in the region that the North East secures funding to allow it to build the prosperity, the skills, the infrastructure and the resilience of the region. We may still want to ask for more funding, but this represents an opportunity for incremental future Deals to accelerate that process and add more responsibilities, powers, and resources" said Cllr Greg Stone. 

"It is an opportunity for a greater approach to regional co-operation and I hope we can play a constructive part in that. We may have started down that road with the North of Tyne, but I don't think it's controversial to acknowledge that the region might have missed a trick in not coming together sooner. The North East could have been in a similar position to Greater Manchester and the West Midlands in already having greater powers, including over transport, and be several years down the line in getting on with the job. It could be argued that we've allowed other regions to get a considerable head start. The opportunities for our region are significant, if we set aside the rivalries and mutual mistrust that have never been too far away in the past.

"The principle is a good one, the funding is not ungenerous. But the Opposition thinks there is still quite a long way to go to convert the Deal document into an arrangement which commands the consent and support of the region's citizens, and delivers effectively.

"Clearly certain aspects of the Deal may not have been our preference. We doubt there is a great clamour for a regional Mayor, but the Deal on offer has come with strings attached. But we do understand this is the only game in town, and if we want to take the money, we have to take the Deal on offer and there isn't an alternative.

"There may well be differences of opinion between and within political parties on these issues. Recent comments from over the road could be viewed as a rather lukewarm welcome to what is on offer. My party is very much in support of devolution, but we perceive that this Deal is less about giving power to the people as it is about handing more power to the existing regional establishment.

"As Liberals, we believe in the importance of opposing concentrations of power and seeking to distribute it more widely. We recognise we are not likely to call the shots in these new arrangements, but we believe strongly in principles of legitimacy, accountability, and scrutiny, and we think more work remains to be done to ensure that the new structures embed those principles and to ensure the Deal commands public support.

"Newcastle City Cpouncil has adopted the principle that scrutiny committees should be chaired by opposition councillors. That principle has been carried over to the North of Tyne's arrangements. It is not a principle that is followed everywhere across the region.

"The strength of scrutiny here has been recognised by the LGA's Peer Review, and we have a strong record on best practice in budget scrutiny and consultation. This motion aims for cross party agreement that these principles are sound ones and that it would be in the best interests of the new regional arrangements that it also seeks to adopt them. The Devo Deal will be responsible for very substantial sums of money and it is in all our interests for it to deliver successfully and transparently.

"There may well be further debate in coming months on the priorities of the new Combined Authority, on the details on the governance of it, and of the public consultation process required to secure agreement for it. There may even be a chance to debate the meaning and substance of some of the more extravagant concepts set out in the sales pitch.

"But this process must be open to all of us in the region, rather than a Deal negotiated between the leaders and Mr Gove in which the rest of us get little or no say and little scope to ask questions or hold decision makers to account. I hope that we can agree that it is important to ensure these principles are wired into the new arrangements from the start."

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