Rare opportunity missed for North East?
Having grown up in the North East I am well-aware of the economic disadvantage which characterises much of the region. Swathes of communities still feel the effects of historic pit and railway works closures, something only emphasised by the latest unemployment figures. Indeed, while the national employment rate is at its joint-highest point since records were formalised in 1971, the North East retains the undesirable title of the highest unemployment in the country at 6.8 per cent of the working population. It seems remarkable then, that when offered the opportunity for devolution in recent years, the region has twice rejected it.
Following the success of Tony Blair's government back in 1998 with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the London Assembly, in July 2004 John Prescott presented a Draft Regional Assemblies Bill to parliament. The North East vote, then one of three planned referendums, was to take place that November, with the proposed changes to come into effect in April 2006. The ballot was all-postal, and required a clear-cut yes or no to a North East Assembly. The result was nothing if not clear-cut, and the 78% no vote led to following referendums in North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber being shelved.
Fast-forward twelve years and a 58% vote for Brexit in the North East was explained in a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as a response to the "double whammy", where people with low skills met a lack of opportunity. A vote of desperation as much as hope some would argue, but was the direction of public anger misplaced? Since the referendum there has been little evidence that funding will return to communities so cut-adrift, and the tragic possibility remains that those areas which voted most strongly for Leave may be worst affected.
In the time leading up to the referendum George Osborne's calls for a Northern Powerhouse became somewhat clichéd, but this did speak to a broader emphasis in Cameron's administration on the potential for devolution - something possibly inspired by the bitterly fought Scottish referendum. Nonetheless, the idea of local mayorships mirroring the London model were put into motion. A second chance at devolution? Perhaps, but this time the decision would be left to council leaders. While other regions championed the idea, the North East rejected the plans, ironically due to concerns about post-Brexit funding.
While the West of England, the West Midlands, and others have now enjoyed two months of new leadership, the North East remains entirely at the hands of Westminster. The new way of doing things is certainly not to be scoffed at. To take Greater Manchester as an example, the region has been granted a new £300m housing fund, along with control of £6bn for health and social care, and future responsibility for the Adult Education Budget. Similar capabilities seem they would be invaluable for the North East and it is a shame that, due to the unemployment figures discussed, council leaders rejected what Sajid Javid described as a "pro-jobs devolution deal".
It should be noted that in the most recent discussions three of the North East's seven councils did vote for the proposals, and a diluted funding deal is supposedly in the works for North Tyneside, Northumberland, and Newcastle. However, for Gateshead, Sunderland, South Tyneside, and my beloved Durham, this regrettably seems like another opportunity missed.