With Jamie Driscoll and Ben Houchen now installed as elected mayors across the North and South of the region, Steven Hugill looks at the North East Combined Authority’s position in the region’s political environment
Standing at a lectern, moments after the final ballot papers were counted, Jamie Driscoll made his inaugural speech as North of Tyne Combined Authority mayor.

With the second preference votes confirming his election success, he spoke of pride in his victory and a focus on levelling the political playing field.

With Mayor Driscoll at the helm to oversee the devolution of power from Westminster to Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – not to mention a £600 million pot to be spent over the next 30 years – the North of Tyne Combined Authority has ambitious plans.

It aims to create 10,000 jobs over the term of the deal, add more than £1 billion in goods and services and leverage in excess of £2 billion of private sector investment.

The scene is similar in the Tees Valley where Ben Houchen has instigated change, the switching of Durham Tees Valley Airport into public ownership one of his flagship deeds.

But what about the ‘middle’ of the region, specifically Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland, whose councils voted against a devolution deal?

With Messrs Driscoll and Houchen acting as visible figureheads for Westminster’s decentralisation of power, could we be primed not for a level playing field but a regional geographical imbalance?

Absolutely not, says Councillor Iain Malcolm, chair of the North East Combined Authority (NECA), the legal body that brings together the four councils serving Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

This part of the region, he says, will be at the forefront of growth and investment.

“Having recently reconstituted NECA, we are in the process of finalising a prospectus for the region that sets out the pillars of our partnership,” Councillor Malcolm told North East Times.

“Now the work really begins, engaging with stakeholders and lobbying the Government.

“We are actively engaged in discussions with the business community, identifying projects that’ll deliver against our ambitions to develop a highly- skilled, well-connected, well-supported place to trade, where creativity and innovation drive our economy.

“We know that ideas created collaboratively, working with the businesses that will reap the benefits of them, is infinitely more valuable than coming to our own conclusions independently.

“The critical thing is that, when the engagement process is concluded, our foot will be on the gas and we’ll move with pace and vigour. We’re certainly not going to be left behind.

“There can be no doubt; the NECA area is open for business. The numbers show the NECA area is out-performing its near-neighbours right now.”

GVA, says Councillor Malcolm, stands at £20.7 billion, with the NECA area home to more than 28,000 businesses, with £7.4 billion of exports.

“That’s more than half the figure of the whole of the North East and Tees Valley,” he added.

“The seven largest employment-generating capital projects we’re working on total £1.6 billion.

“The financial wherewithal and the desire are there.”

Working closely with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to lay fertile ground for growth and investment, NECA is focused on the three portfolios of transport, employability, and economic development and regeneration to deliver its aims.

It is also supporting Invest North East England, and Councillor Malcolm says it has all the attributes it needs to ensure progressive change, without the need for a devolution deal.

“The option of devolution was one we all considered carefully, as part of a seven-strong combined authority at the time,” he says.

“Every area had to decide for itself. My colleagues and I did not believe the devolution deal on offer provided a silver bullet.

“Our view was that we can deliver on our ambitions without an added layer of bureaucracy.

“We have strong political and managerial leadership, and we have the vision to drive this area.

“We’ve been doing that for some time, but with renewed commitment to NECA, and the fresh impetus that provides, we’re certain the results will speak for themselves.

“As the area that sits between the mayoral combined authorities of Tees Valley and North of Tyne, we see NECA as being the figurative glue that holds these two areas together, delivering projects that will add value to not only the four local authority areas it represents, but the entire region.

“We have four civic leaders who are committed and who have a track record of attracting investment and are working to ensure we’re ever- visible with politicians in Westminster and civil servants in Whitehall.

“We’re absolutely determined to make this area a success.”

Does he feel though, that the region could be at risk of division because it has different structures to manage growth, investment and redevelopment?

Again, the response is emphatic.

With the fluctuating political environment comes a need for specific focus. However, he says the idea that the region is no longer united is a fallacy, citing the ownership of Newcastle Airport to enhance his point.

“If you look at the political landscape now, compared with ten years ago, the picture is very different.

“Gone is One North East and the financial resources it had. And gone is one North East region – with Tees Valley having broken away and disparate authorities in the North of Tyne and the larger four authority area.

“However, the new authorities have been borne out of the needs of the individual areas, and that’s right and appropriate,” says Councillor Malcolm.

“Each area has to feel it is in control of its own destiny and has to take the decisions that are right for it.

“We’ll continue to work together when our aspirations require it, with key strategic partners like transport providers, skills agencies and organisations, and bodies like the North East LEP.

“Newcastle International Airport is part-owned by the seven local authorities in the North East.

“As shareholders, we work in partnership to ensure the airport delivers its key objectives, which include improving our connectivity to key national and international trading centres and promoting the area as a prime location for business development.

“These partnerships provide the cohesion that is needed between all public sector authorities, as well as private sector business that has a key role to play in the development of the NECA footprint and the wider region.

“We have to work together to deliver a region that maximises its potential. Equally, we have to work with partners where there is greatest synergy and opportunity, to deliver much more localised ambitions.

“It is right that we collaborate on a number of levels, and that we have flexible enough devolved powers to make decisions locally, on where spending is best targeted to deliver greatest economic advantage.”

So how confident is he that NECA can achieve its objectives and deliver prosperity?

“Absolutely confident,” says Councillor Malcolm. “Our track-record proves what we are capable of.

“Couple that with fresh energy, provided by the renewal of the NECA partnership, and bring the innovation of business to the party and the component parts are there.

“We’re capable, we’re committed and we’re clear – it’s time for the NECA area to shine.”

North East Combined Authority

In the limelight: June 2019