SEVEN North-East councils want to create a new “combined authority” with powers over transport, skills and economic growth. Mark Tallentire reports

DEPENDING on who you listen to, the proposed North East Leadership Board (Nelb) is either a once in a lifetime opportunity to kick-start a North-East economic recovery or the latest evidence the region is being torn in two in a localised edition of the famed north-south divide.

So what is a combined authority?

That’s a tough starter.

The only one currently in existence covers a tightly drawn area of Greater Manchester, which has a much stronger and longer history of co-operative working than our North-East councils.

Others are in the pipeline for the Sheffield City Region and West Yorkshire but the North-East is ahead of the curve on this one, partly because the Government included Newcastle on its eight-strong list for the first wave of City Deals – to devolve power and spending to England’s major conurbations.

What we do know is that it would be a new legal entity, created under the Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act of 2009, and would succeed the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority – taking on its property, rights and liabilities, although these would be ringfenced to the five Tyne and Wear councils, saving new boys Durham and Northumberland from any unnecessary risk.

The combined authority, or North East Leadership Board (Nelb), would have powers over transport, although local councils would still decide concessions and subsidies.

It would also work to boost economic growth: devising a growth plan and investment strategy.

Ross Smith, director of policy at the North East Chamber of Commerce, said: “There’s clearly a lot of detail to be worked out, but hopefully we can do that as we go along and not delay.”

Who came up with the idea?

Today’s proposals are the result of a Governance Review led by the seven councils’ chief executives.

Over three months until May, they considered various alternatives.

Doing nothing would “significantly compromise the ambitions of the area”, they decided, while an informal cross-council structure would miss “the opportunity to fully achieve real and transformative economic benefits”.

Hence, their conclusion: “The best way of achieving sustained economic growth in the region is to establish a Combined Authority.”

Consultation followed, over three weeks in May and early June.

“The feedback has been very positive and has helped to shape the development of the final proposals,” Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council and vice chair of the LA7 Leadership Board said.

So why is it a good idea?

Supporters say since the Government wound up regional development agencies such as One North East, the region has lacked a single, united voice.

If a company wants to invest in Scotland, it picks up the phone to Holyrood, they say. For London, speak to the Mayor.

But, the argument goes, no-one knows who to go to for the North-East.

Further, as the Chancellor tightens his squeeze on public spending, councils must work together to cut costs.

And finally some matters, such as bus routes, cross council boundaries already and joint labour is simple common sense.

Hence, Mick Henry, chair of the LA7 Leadership Board, supports the Nelb because, in his words, it is the best option for formalising pre-existing joint working, speaking with one voice and maximising opportunities for economic growth.

Ross Smith says the Nelb is an “increasing necessity”.

Does everyone agree?

Not quite. Critics say having two Local Enterprise Partnerships (Leps) in the region – the North-East Lep and Tees Valley Unlimited (TVU) – is tearing the region apart and the Nelb will only exacerbate that.

Phil Wilson MP, whose Sedgefield constituency crosses the two, has long called for a single Lep for the region.

But he does accept Nelb is better than doing nothing.

“It’s good news that at least some councils are coming together to speak for the majority of the region,” the Labour MP said.

So is it going to happen?

While not certain, it’s very likely.

The seven councils’ cabinets will gather for simultaneous meetings to discuss the plan at 1pm on Monday.

It would then go to the Secretary of State for a draft order to be put before Parliament, for approval by both Houses.

It would be a major surprise if there were any major interruptions along the way.

Certainly, it seems the political will is there.

In his radical economic review published in April, Labour peer Lord Adonis called for new agencies to improve transport, skills and international trade across the North-East.

A few months earlier, the Heseltine report, commissioned by Downing Street, called for a huge devolution of power and spending from Whitehall to, crucially, the regions.

All the indications are that when George Osborne delivers his next Spending Review next week, the Government will adopt many of the former Conservative deputy prime minister’s key recommendations.

In the NEvolution campaign, all the North-East’s newspapers, including The Northern Echo, have come together to demand the region be allowed to manage and grow its own economy.

Cities minister Greg Clark has urged the LA7 to “accelerate” its combined authority plan and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged to “bang head together” to convince Whitehall mandarins they must cede cash to the provinces.

Ross Smith said: “The Government is clearly going to look favourably at areas which have created structures like this when it comes to devolving powers or funding. It’s something the area has got to bite the bullet and do.”