Conservative supremo Glen Sanderson said he was “not sold” on the idea of reuniting councils either side of the Tyne, a move that could unlock half a billion pounds of government transport investment.
The North East was excluded this week from a £7bn boost for public transport outside London announced in Rishi Sunak’s Budget, while other areas with metro mayors like Greater Manchester and the Tees Valley got major cash injections.
The government has said that our region’s share of the cash and powers over transport matters will only be delivered if and when a new devolution deal is signed covering at least all of Tyne and Wear.
Past talks over such a deal that would have created a vast mayoral combined authority covering Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and County Durham broke down in 2016 – after which Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland broke away to form their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), for which Jamie Driscoll is mayor.
But despite renewed calls this week for the region to be reunited, Coun Sanderson remains unconvinced – and says he doesn’t want to be “forced” into a deal by promises of new funding.
The county council leader told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “So far as I am concerned we have a long way to go before we could consider becoming part of a combined authority with all the councils along with a mayor.
“We have shown through Covid how well we work together without that formal partnership, so I just don’t see the need for that to take place.
“We have worked really well for the last 18 months through some of the biggest crises we have seen.
“In a way, I don’t want to be forced down a road just because there is money at the end of it.”
The three northern councils’ breakaway left Sunderland, Gateshead, South Tyneside, and County Durham in the old North East Combined Authority (NECA), which does not have a mayor or powers devolved by the government.
But the idea of the seven getting back together has been complicated by the government’s recent announcement that single counties could pursue solo devolution deals – an option that leaders further south in Durham are thought to prefer.
Asked if Northumberland could be tempted to do the same, Coun Sanderson said that the current North of Tyne arrangement is a “natural fit” for his county.
The Tory leader, who was elected to the top job last year to replace Peter Jackson, added joining a larger authority covering the entire North East would mean “divergence on a number of issues” between its members.
He added: “We are content with being in the North of Tyne. I think it has worked well for our people and for the three authorities working together, it is a good working relationship. I would not want to change that.”