A crucial debate is being held next month so councillors can discuss whether County Durham should have its own devolution deal or join a ‘super-authority’ with six other North East councils.
Plans are underway to create a new combined authority covering Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, Gateshead, Sunderland, and South Tyneside, governed by a mayor who would be elected in May 2024.
It is understood to be part of a deal that could secure over £3bn in government funding over 30 years and potentially create more than 17,000 jobs.
County Durham’s Labour members, who back a separate county-devolution deal for the unitary authority area, have asked for a public debate on the matter, which will be held at County Hall on Wednesday December 7 at 11am.
County Durham Labour leader, Councillor Carl Marshall, said: “We are battling hard to ensure County Durham receives the best possible devolution outcome – a county-wide deal that enables us to be masters of our own destiny.
“Securing this public debate is the first step in overturning the regressive decision of the Tory-led Coalition to make County Durham a small part of the Tyne and Wear and Northumberland super-authority, which would mean investment decisions in our county are overseen by a mayor on Tyneside or in Northumberland.
“I would urge anyone with an interest in the future success and prosperity of County Durham, to attend this debate and let this shambolic Coalition know that the time has come for them to finally put County Durham first.”
The group’s deputy leader, Cllr Rob Crute, said the ‘super-authority’ favoured by the county council’s joint administration does nothing to address over a decade of Government austerity.
He said: “County Durham would end up feeding on scraps as much of the investment has already been divided up and agreed by the other six authorities.
“As with everything they do, the coalition has been painfully slow to decide on a preferred deal, equally slow to the negotiating table and incredibly weak in championing our county.
“They are willing to give up the opportunity a county wide deal offers to become a small part of a massive authority covering everything from Berwick to Barnard Castle.
“This debate is vital for the future of County Durham and it’s time for our residents’ voices to be heard.”
Durham County Council was previously considering its own single-county devolution deal instead of joining a region-wide body, but it is understood Government insistence that such an arrangement would require the election of a county mayor was a sticking point for the council’s coalition Lib Dem, Conservative and independent leadership.
Last month, the council said it was ‘minded’ to join the LA7, arguing the it would secure the most funding and council functions would remain the same.
It is understood that the Government is willing to increase funding for the proposed devolution deal so the per capita value of the six-area proposal is extended across County Durham.
If the seven-council deal – the LA7 – is agreed, it would mark a return to a regional alliance that was close to a previous devolution package six years ago.
It fell apart at the eleventh hour in 2016 amid a split among the area’s Labour-run establishment and Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland subsequently broke away to form their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA).
It is thought that the new settlement would grant the North East powers already available to mayors in other parts of England, such as bringing bus services back into public control and setting their ticket fares at cheaper levels.
Bringing County Durham into the deal would mean the new mayor’s role could not be merged with the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, as planned, due to force area boundaries.
Durham County Council leader, Cllr Amanda Hopgood said: “Of the potential devolution options that were on the table, the Joint Administration has chosen the route that is clearly in the best interests of residents in County Durham, and indeed the wider region.
“A regional approach is also preferred by the business community and allows existing cross border arrangements for areas such as transport to be consolidated into a regional deal.
“An LA7 deal will lead to the highest level of investment and flexibility on how it is used, and an opportunity to create a louder and more influential collective voice for our county, our region and all of our residents.
“Those are the facts and I hope that councillors across the chamber will recognise them during the debate on December 7.”
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