Owen Temple & Margaret Nealis

Liberal Democrat campaigners for Consett North Learn more

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Is this the right bus?

by Owen Temple on 11 December, 2013

Because there’s no destination sign on the front, and no fares published.

That’s how I feel about the new “Combined Authority” to be created across the two county councils of Northumberland and Durham, and the five unitary councils of Tyne & Wear, about which you are all being consulted. And I’m only a little clearer after attending tonight’s focus group at Crook.

The Combined Authority will be new body, separate from the councils which create it, and running alongside them. It will comprise the leaders of seven councils and one (non-voting) representative of business interests It is intended to enable better co-ordination of economic policy across the region, and better co-ordination of the transport infrastructure, than if each local council goes on “doing its own thing”. That should make us all better off.

The other big advantage argued for the scheme is that this new body will have more clout and coherence than the individual councils when it comes to arguing its case at Brussels or Westminster. That should enable it to access more grants and funding for economic development.

If  these things come to pass that will be great, but there are also risks and I worry that we may sleep-walk into some of them:

Political risk: With the leaders of the seven councils all being Labour, where will the voice of those communities which traditionally don’t vote Labour (especially rural communities) be heard? It’s essential that there’s a proper scrutiny process which includes councillors from other groups to hold the Combined Authority to account. There’s no detail about this in the documents, and without it there’s a real risk that decision making will be shrouded in secrecy.

And don’t be deceived by website statements like, “It is not about local councils giving up power to another body”. The paper sent to government makes it very clear that a reason for not just pursing further co-operation between councils on the existing model was that that would mean decisions having to be referred back for authorisation. Clearly, in the case of a Combined Authority that will not be necessary. It will have powers.

Centralising risk: Giving greater power for “strategic thinking” to just seven leaders increases the risk that some areas will be “forgotten about” in the process. For instance, the transport section includes High Speed Rail, East Coast Main Line, franchising of local rail services, aviation connectivity and the role of our ports and strategic road network. All great, but magnets that are sited nowhere near you!

Competitive risk: Because this combined authority does not include Teesside, it cannot represent the North East as a whole, and there has to be a risk that energy will be expended in competing within our region, and competing delegations to Westminster and Brussels. That’s particularly awkward when a large chunk of European funding has been specifically awarded to Durham and Tees Valley, the only “transitional areas” in the North East deemed to need additional funding. It won’t be ideal if we are on opposite side of the “border” of this Combined Authority.

So should we get on the bus? I’m told it’s the only one available, and if we don’t get on we’ll just be stranded. I guess in that case at least we’ll be out of the rain. But I’m going to let both the county council and the Secretary of State know my concerns. I want to be sure there’s an inspector on the bus, just in case the driver is not as reliable as we’ve been promised.

Please visit the county’s consultation page here and chip in with your views.

   1 Comment

One Response

  1. Emma says:

    Hi Owen, I’ve filled in the Local consultation. It was a little rushed as I haven’t had much time to do any research.

    I share your concerns about political representation. The proposal is to appoint only the leaders or elected mayors to the authority, then the authority will not reflect the political make up of the NE region. Although it pains me to say this, if a percentage of council seats are conservative or lib-dem (present company excluded) then the political makeup of authority should represent this.

    I’ll email you my consultation comments. Lucky you eh lol!

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