Democracy concern over new authority

A NEW authority for the North East must have input from town and parish councils, members say.

Morpeth Town Council members have spoken of their concerns about plans to establish a Combined Authority covering Northumberland, Durham and Tyne and Wear.

The initiative, which would be led by the region’s seven principal authorities, was discussed by the town’s Finance and General Purposes Committee as consultation on the proposal is carried out by the Government.

Committee Chairman David Parker said: “I’m not very happy about this Combined Authority idea. I think it is city councils by the back door.

“It is an agenda that the previous Government certainly had at times, but it went down the democratic route and people in the area decided that they didn’t want a North East Assembly. Then there was the proposal about city regions, which has fallen. Now we have this.

“It isn’t just a matter of having elected people on the body, it is enabling the public to have a sense that they can affect its work and its policies and priorities. It may be bringing democratic bodies together, but it is very remote and not very easily got at.”

But member Nic Best said there may be some merits in the proposal.

“I would say that the Combined Authority is the least bad option,” he said.

“It does include Northumberland and County Durham in with the Tyne and Wear authorities so it is not just a city one. The two rural shire counties will get a look in and I understand that the Leader of County Durham will be heading up the whole thing.

“There are issues such as transport integration and housing allocations that need to be dealt with over a sub-regional area. The Core Strategies of all these authorities are not co-ordinated and they are coming up with aspirations of growth which compete with each other. This combined authority might be a way of tackling that.

“I take the point that it is not completely democratic, but we do need something between principal authorities and national government.”

However, Coun Best added that there must be a way of scrutinising the new authority’s work and that town and parish councils should be able to contribute through an advisory group.

“It might appear at the moment that this is going to be a gathering of the leaders of the seven local authorities, so I think we need to say there needs to be a scrutiny function of some sort at the level of the smaller authorities,” he said.

“The parish and town councils should form an advisory group to support this. It might seem like more bureaucracy, but if the Combined Authority is going to be democratic and accountable, that is one way it could be.”

Committee members agreed to put forward the suggestions as part of the consultation process.

The North East Chamber of Commerce has backed the proposals for a Combined Authority, saying it would provide a coordinated approach to economic development across council boundaries and a united voice when lobbying the Government.