Devolution: Power to the people or a dodgy deal?

The seven leaders of the local authorities which make up the North East Combined Authority.
The seven leaders of the local authorities which make up the North East Combined Authority.

Here is the third set of responses in our new series as we give our readers the chance to ask politicians of all stripes from the area for their views on the issues hitting the headlines.

Following a suggestion from a reader, we plan to run a regular feature in which we put your questions to politicians in the Berwick constituency.

The aim is that readers can ask a question or raise an issue that has been in the news, but get answers from local representatives about how it affects north Northumberland. Hopefully, it can provide a local view rather than just a national overview of policies, issues or talking points that are in the public eye.

If you would like to submit a question for the politicians, contact Ben O’Connell on 01665 602234 or the email address above.

The third question is: How do you think the devolution deal for the North East will benefit north Northumberland and how do you think residents will take to it given the fact that it comes with an elected mayor and the fact that a regional assembly was so soundly rejected in 2004?

Nigel Coghill-Marshall, Ukip

The idea sounds good. A regional authority headed by an elected mayor with devolved powers working for the benefit of the North East. Particularly since many of us interpret national policies and spending initiatives as being London centric.

A closer reading of the agreement signed by George Osborne and the leaders of the councils involved, however, reveals one of those trendy Mission Statements so beloved of modern HR departments in multinational companies. ‘Undertake a comprehensive review’, ‘facilitate’, ‘actively stimulate’, ‘fully, multi-modal’, etc. Sound interesting, but mean little. Words like how, when, why and where speak volumes by their absence.

Where specific responsibilities and powers are listed, more questions are raised.

The new mayor will have responsibility for rolling out high-speed broadband at a time when the Government has withdrawn its commitment to provide such broadband to all homes and businesses. How will that work?

Powers to raise money by increasing business rates will potentially devastate struggling small businesses and shops in our rural communities if (sorry, when) implemented.

It is the potential democratic deficit that concerns me. A mayor and cabinet largely comprising people from urban areas will not understand or prioritise rural affairs and concerns. How will a cabinet member elected on one manifesto in his/her county area react if expected to abide by policies proposed by a mayor if they run counter to those on which he or she was elected? Can either mayor or cabinet overrule the other?

What about conflicting priorities of mayor and PCC(s). Who will prevail?

Why will the head of the Regional Health Structure be a ‘National Figure’? A contradiction in terms surely?

What of staffing for the new mayor? Existing staff utilised? Or a new set-up?

There is room for conflict with other regions with different priorities. Who has the final word?

As it stands, I can see no benefit to the county.

We need answers to the questions that I ask. And, in the words of Peter Simple in his estimable column that used to appear in the Daily Telegraph, ‘I only ask, because I want to know’.

Scott Dickinson, Labour

The so called ‘devo deal’ for the North East isn’t perfect. This type of step forward rarely is, but make no mistake, it is a step forward. I’m cautious simply because this Government has a habit of spinning the reality of their policies.

We’re working hard in Northumberland to get the best possible deal for our county and we haven’t signed on the dotted line because we didn’t think the deal was good enough at the outset for us. The cuts to the council budget have been truly shocking. By 2019, we’ll have lost over 80 per cent of our funding and our residents will be valued at just £6.85 per person compared to urban areas where it will be a whopping £66.82 per person. That’s why we’ve insisted the Government look again at how they fund rural communities. That’s very relevant to north Northumberland and the Government should listen and act. I hope our two government MPs back that position.

It seems that local Conservatives are only interested in the ‘politics’ of the deal. They are seemingly only interested in an elected mayor for the North East and it was the only real issue that the Government absolutely wanted in the devo deal. Personally, I think the mayor is an imposition by the Government, but I did note that a recent poll said 59 per cent of those polled wanted a mayor. It’s a pity that the mayor issue has detracted from the really important lobbying we’re doing to get a better deal for north Northumberland, lock in the funding for the Ashington Blyth Tyne line and make sure our communities get more Regional Growth Fund and European funding.

In this deal, it’s Labour that has been fighting for the NE and we’re awaiting the next proposals from the Government.

We won’t let them backslide and we’ll continue to emphasise how important our plans for jobs and the economy of Northumberland are for this deal.

We’ll stand up for the rural communities in north Northumberland who face the brunt of this urban government’s cuts. The ball is firmly in the Government’s court.

Julie Pörksen, Liberal Democrats

Devolution can, in principle, result in stronger and more effective governance on a regional level – the more power devolved locally the better. For the North East, devolution will most likely not result in any great cash windfall, yet I hope, like the EU, Westminster recognises our region’s continued need for investment and development.

Due to our region’s political make-up, in the absence of a strong independent, we will almost certainly get a Labour mayor elected primarily by our urban areas. There is scepticism – both in the media and on the doorstep; the previous rejection of regional government, along with what might effectively be a one-party state, all could lead to a lack of confidence in devolution.

Devolution to regions can present another risk – that power and money will actually be taken away from Northumberland and other local councils and pooled at a regional level – resulting in less local accountability, not more.

How a devolved region chooses to spend its money is the key question. In the North East, north Northumberland is part of the minority of remote and rural residential and business communities. Politicians can be tempted to take decisions which benefit the majority of (urban) voters. The organisation of devolution in practice needs to safeguard against the neglect of north Northumberland.

Devolution could bring greater prosperity to the North East economy with an efficient, coordinated approach to infrastructure investment and management such as transport, export strategies into European markets, marketing tourism and further education.

In order to ensure this economic prosperity reaches every community and person including in north Northumberland, I believe there needs to be written minimum service levels so that each North East resident and business knows what their rights are with regard to the quality and accessibility of service they can expect. These could range from public transport – ensuring services stop at stations in Northumberland, to guaranteeing access to post-16 education and assurances on the distribution of emergency services.

If devolution is the future then I believe concrete guarantees will ensure that everyone in the North East gets a fair deal.

Tom Stewart, Green Party

The ‘devolution deal’ raises serious concerns at almost every level.

The current North East Combined Authority consists of two members from each of the seven constituent local authorities; these are self-appointed with no direct accountability to the people that they claim to represent – the general population has never voted them into their position. On Tuesday, these unelected people will already have decided whether or not to pursue a formal bid to Westminster, for the establishment of a Mayoral Combined Authority, so the debate may already be out of our hands.

A central plank of Green Party thinking is that power and decision-making should lie at the lowest suitable level; there are some strategic decisions that are best taken at national level, and some at international level, which is why we support the UK’s continued voice in Europe. However, there is a huge amount of decision-making that has previously been moved up the chain for the wrong reason – to increase central Government control of our lives. Therefore, it would be natural for the Green Party to support devolution to the regions, and also to the lower levels of local government; however, this MUST be coupled with democratic accountability and sufficient financial autonomy.

In 2004, 78 per cent voted against a proposal for devolution to a North East Assembly. The largest impact on debate since then has been the Scottish Referendum and their ongoing devolution; meanwhile, the formation of the single-tier Northumberland County Council has reduced accessibility and accountability for many here. The result is that we in north Northumberland feel a growing distance from power and influence, both nationally AND regionally.

We find it hard to believe that this piecemeal approach to devolution will change things for the better in our rural areas – what is needed (but what is never going to be offered while the Tories retain any majority) is a comprehensive national debate about the constitution of the UK; the four countries and the constituent regions. Devolution to a democratically-elected assembly, with appropriate access to finance, would be worth supporting; a token figurehead mayor may not be that.

Editor’s note: Rachael Roberts, who stood as the Green candidate in the last General Election is moving away from the area, so Tom Stewart, co-ordinator of the Berwick Constituency Green Party, has taken over to answer our questions.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Conservative

There has been an economic gap between the south and the rest of the country for decades. Between 2004 and 2013, only one job was created in cities outside the south for every 12 net additional jobs created in cities in the south. I believe that we need to rebalance our economy so that everyone can benefit from the economic recovery.

The North East devolution deal – negotiated and agreed by our democratically-elected local council leaders, including Northumberland County Council – includes far-reaching new powers over funding and services including £900million of extra funding to improve the North East economy. A directly-elected North East mayor will be accountable to the people of our region and will be able to ensure money is spent on our priorities.

The last time we in the North East were offered a regional assembly in 2004, we said no. It would have created an additional layer of bureaucracy via an untested model. Now, we have seen what a directly-elected mayor has done for London. One figurehead to promote a region and make decisions on transport, infrastructure and investment based on local priorities.

ComRes conducted a poll for the Centre for Cities thinktank, released last week, which showed strong support across the North East for a leader to take control of housing, transport and major investment in our region. 59 per cent of those polled believe the new mayor should have more powers than local councils. There is a clear appetite among local people to have these decisions taken at a regional level to ensure our priorities are taken into account. Despite this, some Labour MPs are fighting the idea, as it would give the people of our region direct control of these big decisions normally taken by bureaucrats. I am a firm believer in people power – for too long, unaccountable officials in Brussels and London have taken decisions on our behalf. It is time for the North East to take back control.