Letter to the Journal, 19th November
Earlier this week I attended the public meeting of the NECA Leadership Board at Gateshead Civic Centre. For the uninitiated, this is the main forum for deciding the business of the Combined Authority, and consists of the leaders of the seven NE Combined Authority councils, all of whom are Labour.
Whilst listening to the behind closed doors pre-meeting might have been more informative than the main public proceedings, it was difficult to identify precisely how transparent and accountable NECA is in practice.
The meeting seemed keen not to discuss whether the decision by its chair (Cllr Henig of Durham) to hold a mini-referendum in his county on the devolution deal should be extended to other parts of the Combined Authority area.
The report from the transport portfolio holder (Newcastle’s Cllr Forbes) criticised the performance of Nexus and DB Regio, particularly on the day of the Great North Run, and vowed to hold them to account until performance improves. It was unclear who holds his own performance to account given there is no opposition representation.
The meeting heard about the failure of the authority’s Quality Contract Scheme plans, with an report noting that the “significant sum” of £2.4m had been spent to date, more than half of which went on external legal advice. Who is accountable for this failure? No one seemed very keen to discuss accountability or lessons learnt.
The meeting heard whispering about the LEP and the failure of its chair to be present, yet the absence of all seven leaders from the last LEP board meeting in a deliberate snub was not remarked upon. The failure of the Combined Authority leaders to develop a harmonious working relationship with senior business personnel should be a cause of concern to all in the region.
Finally, the meeting heard a report suggesting that it was currently impossible to establish an accurate budget and Transport Levy calculation for the coming year. It would be necessary to propose a “base budget” based on this year’s total with the likelihood that they would need to come back for “top ups” during the course of the year. This is not an encouraging sign. It also sought permission for an additional £500,000 to be released from member councils towards the running costs of the organisation, citing a requirement for external consultancy support relating to the devolution deal’s health and social care aspects.
Whilst I accept it is difficult to accurately prepare budgets ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review next week and related grant settlement announcements, the early days of the Combined Authority seem to be dominated by some troubling themes.
There appears to be a real problem in achieving effective co-operation with business. A major plank of the NECA Transport Manifesto and devolution deal’s public transport plans has collapsed, leaving a big hole in the region’s public transport budget. There is a marked lack of clarity on how the organisation will deliver on its plans, and on how much it will cost North East taxpayers next year.
I am a supporter of greater devolution to cities and regions and I think it is vital for the best interests of the North East that the combined authority is successful, effective, and efficient. However, having seen it in action on Tuesday ,I think it has a long way to go to achieve this.
The civic-minded should be wary of allowing this body more powers and more money without greater accountability and proof of performance.
Cllr Greg Stone
Lib Dem, North Heaton, Newcastle City Council