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North East devolution in doubt ahead of key meetings

The future of devolution in the north east could be in doubt, with both the North East Combined Authority (NECA) and Gateshead Council due to vote on it tomorrow.

Gateshead was originally one of the seven constituent authorities who signed an agreement with the government to establish a devolution deal for the north east in October 2015.

However, in May 2016 it voted against supporting the agreement because of ongoing concerns about its future, making it a potential non-conforming authority (NCA).

At a meeting tomorrow morning, Gateshead Council’s cabinet will vote on new proposals on whether it formally consents to the order so that it can “ensure that Gateshead plays a full and equal part in the decision-making processes relating to devolution and the Mayoral Combined Authority”.

This will be followed by a meeting of the NECA in the afternoon, in which its members will consider the new £900m devolution deal.

However, Cllr Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council, said that Sunderland, South Tyneside and Durham councils are all also  “considering their positions” on the deal.

“I suspect if another [council] becomes non-consenting then there will be more likely two or three others, Gateshead would remain non-consenting, and the deal would die,” he said.

Cllr Paul Watson, chair of the NECA and leader of Sunderland council, said that the NECA was now “in consultation with our individual cabinets, political groupings, and other stakeholders to gain their opinions and, where necessary, permissions as to how we proceed at the next leadership board meeting on the 6th September 2016”.

“We remain committed to securing the best possible devolution arrangements for the north east and we are in continued communication with government as we work towards achieving this,” he added.

The latest NECA briefing on the deal says that it has received confirmation from Sajid Javid, the new secretary for communities and local government, that a requirement for an elected mayor is still a prerequisite for a devolution deal. The DCLG said last week that it will continue with compulsory elected mayors, despite rumours that the controversial policy would soon be overturned.

Javid also said that the government will guarantee funding for all projects funded through the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) that are agreed before the Autumn Statement, although he said further arrangements would be needed for projects beyond that date.

The combined authorities have previously raised concerns about the loss of EU funding following June’s referendum result.

The briefing also includes further details of proposed arrangements for the NECA deal. These include plans to seek bus franchising powers under the Bus Services Bill, as well as power over traffic regulation and the ability to make deals with Highways England.

The NECA will also seek to build more houses in the region by exercising the powers of the Homes and Communities Agency, including compulsory purchasing powers which will be used by the mayor.

In addition, it will have the power to develop the North East Planning Development Framework (not a regional spatial strategy) that local planning authorities within the combined area should have regard to when preparing their development plan documents or any other local development documents, and will jointly establish a North East Land Board with the communities and local government secretary. The LGA warned recently that up to 5.4 million people will need affordable homes by 2024.

A DCLG spokesperson said: “We remain committed to the north east devolution deal, but we have always been clear that this is a bottom-up process and for local areas to decide.”

(Image c. Wilka Hudson)

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