Council leaders have been left “incredibly disappointed” after the North East was excluded from a £7bn boost for transport outside of London.
Ahead of Rishi Sunak’s autumn Budget this week, the Treasury announced that the Chancellor is set to pump billions of pounds into improving public transport networks in areas covered by metro mayors – including £1bn for Greater Manchester and £310m for the Tees Valley.
But not a single penny was allocated to the North East, amid a long-running devolution saga over how Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, and County Durham should be governed.
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Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller accused ministers of “letting the people of the North East down again” and warned that the region will be left behind if it cannot secure its share of the funding.
The Government has said that if local councils can finally agree to a new devolution deal that would involve a mayor being elected to represent the wider region, at least all of Tyne and Wear, it would trigger an expected £500m investment in public transport.
But Coun Miller told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that, while there are talks about striking such a pact, the money “needs to be spent now” on urgent upgrades.
He said on Monday that he had been “not surprised, but incredibly disappointed” by the Treasury’s announcement and that it amounted to “levelling down” for the North East.
Previous talks over such a North East-wide deal broke down in 2016 after a split in the region’s Labour-dominated establishment.
Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland broke away to form their own North of Tyne Combined Authority, for which Labour’s Jamie Driscoll was elected mayor in 2019, leaving Sunderland, Gateshead, South Tyneside, and County Durham in the old North East Combined Authority (NECA) – which does not have a mayor or powers devolved by the Government.
The prospect of getting the four south of Tyne authorities back on board has been complicated in recent months by Durham's pursuit of a solo county devolution deal – which council leader Amanda Hopgood confirmed is now the preferred option.
The Liberal Democrat, who leads the council’s coalition administration, said she was hoping to hear from the Government this week on whether Durham will be chosen to pilot the system – but that “the devil is in the detail” and accepting it would depend on what money and powers are on offer.
In the meantime, she joined calls from Coun Miller and North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll for the Government to hand the £500m over to the North East Joint Transport Committee, the body through which the seven councils currently oversee transport issues.
Coun Hopgood said: “Give us the money now and we will crack on and start delivering outcomes rather than spend months or years looking at another model that won’t deliver for two or three years.
“That money could be given to the North East Joint Transport Committee and we could start seeing action within months or even weeks.
“If the Government is insistent on a mayoral deal then you are looking at at least 18 months before it could happen.”
Just last week, plans for an £800m upgrade of the region's bus network were unveiled, while North East chiefs have a £6.8bn vision to enhance the region's transport infrastructure by 2035.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, who chairs the JTC, added: “It was very disappointing not to see the North East on the Government’s list of regions that will benefit from long-term transport settlements. We have a transformative transport plan that is supported by the whole region across both public and private sector. We urgently need funding so that we can start delivering on the plan.
“We have been in positive dialogue with the Government for some time and we now need this engagement to be speeded up.”
While Mr Driscoll has said that he has assurances that the region’s money has been “set aside” until a new devolution deal is agreed, Coun Miller warned that he has “no trust” in the Government to do so.
He added: “If they were absolutely committed and wanted to give our seven local authorities this money then they would have said that they had put our money aside, but they have not mentioned us at all.”
When asked on Monday, the Treasury did not confirm whether or not any money had been set aside for the North East.
Coun Miller said he expects that Sunderland would support a devolution deal “with the right powers and money”, but that the NECA authorities could not take action until County Durham has decided for sure which option it wants to pursue, and called for the Government to put an offer on the table.
He added: “We are not playing politics at all, we are just asking what the Government can give us for the people of the North East.
“The Government urgently needs to come forward with an offer and we will take it on its merits, but at the moment it just looks like they are going to leave us behind.”
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