FOLLOWING a high-profile negotiation between Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and the Government, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has renewed its call for a stronger devolved voice for the North-East.
"For the first time people are saying they want a mayor," said director Henri Murison. "Devolution has always been a good idea in terms of local decision making because it’s a good way of unlocking the local economy but it’s not something people say they need.
"People have never been clamouring before but people are now saying they want one of those. They are looking across the Pennines and they’re looking at Andy Burnham and they’re looking at Dan Jarvis (Mayor of Sheffield City Region) and those sorts of voices."
He added: "The North-East is not getting the voice it deserves because it has two mayors representing smaller areas and there's an area in between that doesn't have that voice at all."
He added: "People in Greater Manchester seem to agree with Andy Burnham and people in Dan Jarvis’ area seem to agree Tier 3 was the right thing to do.
"They definitely seem to be carrying the public with them and that suggests there is something in this model."
But the reality is still “complicated”, says Councillor Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council.
Stuck in the middle between the Tees Valley and Tyneside, County Durham has borders with three Tees Valley authorities and has policing, fire and health links with Darlington and other parts of Teesside.
There are two elected mayors in the region - Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne.
Cllr Henig, who said the preferred option for Durham had been devolution for all 12 North-East authorities, said: "Clearly for us we need to do what benefits the people of County Durham and the economy of County Durham the most and that has always been the starting point."
Another devolution deal including the North of Tyne, which has its own elected mayor Jamie Driscoll, and councils in County Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland, were being discussed last month – areas which have been working together during the pandemic.
But it is understood a white paper on devolution may be pushed back because of changes to the ministerial team, following the resignation of Middlesbrough MP Simon Clarke last month, and may not emerge until next year.
Cllr Henig said he was not sure people in County Durham wanted an elected mayor.
He said: "If you were to go to Newton Aycliffe or Barnard Castle I don't think you would get a huge wave of people saying they want an elected mayor. I've never had a big mail bag on that issue. That's my feeling. "
He added: "I do think working as we have on coronavirus has had advantages in terms of a constant message. We will always work with our neighbours but it is complicated if you're talking about formal structures with elected mayors. It needs to be thought about quite carefully."
Cllr Henig added that Whitehall was still used to having a centralised system, which had shown in recent negotiations between the Government and regional leaders.
He said: "There have been a lot of meetings overs the last week or two. It's welcome they are taking place but Government is not used to them."
He added: "If we're going to have devolved structures and strong mayors the government can't turn around and complain about devolved structures and strong mayors. If the government wants to go down that road is has to expect they are going to fight hard for their areas because that's what they are going to do."
Extolling the benefits of localised decision making, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: "We have all clearly seen the benefits of devolution. In the last year alone, we have secured hundreds of millions of pounds of additional investment from Government; supported the creation of thousands of jobs and hundreds of start-ups.
"We’ve put our small corner of the country at the top table alongside London, Birmingham and Manchester, and we’ve been able to prioritise things that matter to local people, such as rescuing Teesside Airport and saving it from closure, or redeveloping the former Redcar Steelworks site.
"As we continue to deal with the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, the need to deliver economic growth, create good quality jobs and boost skills has never been more important.
"We need to take every opportunity to bridge the economic gap between north and south and provide fairer opportunities for all, and devolution has ensured we can do that and allowed us to punch above our weight nationally and internationally.”