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POLITICS in PUBS Newcastle

North East Devolution - greater democracy or more bureaucracy?
Notes from meeting held on 13th February 2024

The Newcastle group held a debate to get to the bottom of what regional devolution really means for the people of the North East.

On 2nd May, voters in the North East will elect a Mayor as part of a new devolution deal. We wanted to know if this will this bring more power to the people and better local investment, or just add an extra layer of government bureaucracy.

The evening started with an excellent introduction from Guy Renner-Thompson, the Conservative Party candidate for North East Mayor. Born and raised in Northumberland, Guy studied at Newcastle University, runs his own business in the North East and was elected Councillor for Bamburgh in 2017. As the children's and education chief at Northumberland County Council, he has overseen considerable improvements in schools and training facilities throughout the county.

He was selected as the mayoral candidate by North East Conservative Party members in November, and now joins the race against Kim McGuinness (Labour), Jamie Driscoll (Independent), Andrew Gray (Green), Paul Donaghy (Reform) and Aidan King (Lib Dems).

Guy began by outlining the history to devolution in the North East and went on to describe the details of the current deal and discuss how this can benefit people and businesses in the region.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again

Several members of the group remembered Labour's proposal to create a North East regional assembly in 2004, which was rejected by a resounding 78% in a referendum with a turnout of 48%. Later attempts to create a mayoral combined authority for the North East region collapsed in 2015 due to local disagreements, but a more modest devolution deal in 2018 led to the creation of the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), comprising Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland.

The Government's Levelling Up White Paper in February 2022 promised "a devolution deal by 2030 for every part of England that wants one" and committed to expanding the NTCA to include neighbouring authorities. In December 2022, UK Government and local leaders reached an agreement and the North East devolution deal was published. The legislation to grant devolution to the North East was put before Parliament in February 2024 - just a few days before this meeting - and the deal will come into effect in May.

What's the deal?

The devolution deal brings together Northumberland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham to create the North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA), home to 2 million people.

More than £6bn of funding has been announced over 30 years, including an investment fund of £1.4bn to support economic regeneration and over £2bn to improve transport infrastructure. It is expected to leverage a further £5bn of private sector investment.

Decision-making power will be transferred from central government to the region in the areas of transport, skills training, housing, planning and regeneration, and economic development.

Power to the people?

The Levelling Up white paper claimed that the deal will "bring greater power and control back to people in England." Several members expressed scepticism at this, having witnessed the consequences of devolution in other parts of the UK, where the gap between levels of administration has made it harder for people to hold their politicians to account.

Guy emphasised that the only new post created by this deal is that of the Mayor, who will sit on a board with leaders of the seven councils. Most decisions will require a majority vote, and budget decisions will require unanimity. He stressed that the deal does not take power or functions away from the local councils - rather, it draws power and money away from London and into the region.

Although the Mayor has limited executive powers and a tenure of only four years, Guy said that the role carries a moral authority and can show leadership and apply influence to ensure beneficial outcomes for the North East.

Democratic mandate?

Some members expressed concern and anger that devolution is being foisted on us in a top-down manner, despite having been rejected by the people in 2004. It was in the Conservative Party manifesto, but was also pushed hard by Labour, giving people little choice at the general election. Guy argued that the democratic mandate for the devolution deal comes from the fact that elected councillors took part in the negotiations that led to the final agreement. A member from Gateshead pointed out that Gateshead Council had been extremely reluctant to join the combined authority but were compelled to do so for economic reasons.

The deal was subject to an eight-week public consultation in early 2003 which gained over 3,000 responses, the majority agreeing with the proposals. However, Guy's experience on the campaign trail suggests that although business leaders are very enthusiastic about devolution, most ordinary people aren't even aware that it is happening.

We discussed the risk of low engagement, noting that the Manchester Mayor was elected on a turnout of only 33%. Guy said that Government will be sending an information booklet to every household and there will be hustings with coverage on BBC and ITV. The fact that the mayoral election takes place on the same date as the local elections may help to increase turnout.

Big region, big issues

According to our national broadcaster, the biggest issue facing mayoral candidates is climate change and how the region can reach net zero over the coming years. Thanks for your input, BBC!

But seriously ...

Once a powerhouse of science and industry which gave the world the locomotive and the lightbulb, the North East now underperforms on several social and economic indicators, with productivity, household income and education levels below the national average. It also is bottom of the league for small business start-ups, an issue of particular concern to Guy.

Guy said that devolution represents a huge opportunity for the whole region to grow and thrive. His own priorities, which chimed with several members, include better support for small businesses to start and expand, skills training to ensure new jobs go to local people, and improving public transport networks while recognising the importance of car travel and not penalising motorists.

It is crucial that regeneration plans do not just focus on the major cities but create jobs and opportunities in small towns and rural areas throughout the region. Economic development must not rely on the quick fix of foreign investment. Industrial growth must be powered by affordable, reliable energy - which means investing in nuclear, rather than giving up our prime agricultural land for turbines or solar panels.


There was a fair amount of (respectful!) disagreement during the evening, but we all agreed that the North East has a proud history and great potential. Whether we feel there was a democratic mandate for devolution or not, it is happening and we need to make the best of it. Regardless of how the decision was reached, we now have a democratic choice. We should familiarise ourselves with the manifestos of the candidates, use our vote on 2nd May and encourage others to do so. We must ensure our councillors and Mayor understand our concerns and aspirations for the region; we must put pressure on our elected representatives to work in the people's interests; and, yes, we need to vote them out again if they fail to do so!

Paula Lightfoot, 2024

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