Joint authority needs to be fair, says Berwick MP

Concerns have been raised that Northumberland could lose out in a new combined 
authority for the North East.

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith said he supports the idea of councils working together at a regional level to boost growth and job prospects. But when the issue was debated in Parliament last week, he said scrutiny of the authority’s work would be essential to ensure a fair deal for all.

“I want to ensure that 
rural interests are protected,” he said. “We need to know how scrutiny will be exercised effectively so that the body does the job it needs to do, and for the whole area. Needs are different in different areas.”

The combined authority brings together councils in Northumberland, Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland to form policies on issues such as transport, infrastructure, skills and the economy. However, Sir Alan, whose constituency stretches from Berwick to just north of Morpeth, says he is worried that rural areas may not be adequately represented and he is also alarmed that all of its members are from the Labour Party.

“My concern is not only about political balance, but about geographical balance and particularly the needs of rural areas,” he said.

“Transport needs in rural areas are quite different. The sort of collective contract 
suggested for urban areas might not work for rural areas and might lead to small businesses running bus services in those areas being excluded because of a big contract going to a big company. For example, there is an award-winning small business bus contractor in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which has grown from providing a very small service to providing services over a wider area. There are quite a number of others dotted around Northumberland that need to be involved in future provision of services.

“Providing public transport in rural areas is often a matter of finding a cost-effective way of ensuring that a bus service can run at all. We are not talking about a half-hourly service, or 15-minute service. We are talking about whether it is a one-day-a-week service, or not at all, or whether there can be a bus every day to a particular village.”

But the MP said he does support the creation of the authority in general as it should improve job prospects for his constituents by pursuing policies that will support them.

And he said the set-up is better than one proposed by the previous Government, which did not offer enough devolved power.

He added: “The body can be important and valuable for us.

“We need local authorities in the area to work together. We also need their co-operation to be recognised by central government giving them more power to make decisions in the region and resources that they can use to promote jobs.

“The body will be under significant scrutiny to ensure that it delivers on its potential.”

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government Brandon Lewis said: “The authorities involved should take care to ensure that they deliver best practice by having good governance and proper representation.”

The new authority has been given the go-ahead by MPs and held its first meeting on Tuesday. As the formal Parliamentary process is nearing completion, the meeting focused on procedural matters.

A further meeting will be held in the coming weeks to develop operational detail.

A formal launch event is expected in May or June.