We shouldn’t be surprised that a North East devolution deal failed

You can't tell, but this guy is crying. Image: Getty.

Earlier this week, the North East Combined Authority finally pulled the plug on a regional devolution deal for the area, with Sunderland, Durham, South Tyneside and Gateshead all voting against taking the proposals out to public consultation. This means it is now all but impossible for a deal to be agreed, and for the necessary parliamentary orders to be passed, ahead of the proposed May 2017 mayoral elections.

On the one hand, this is certainly regrettable. For the second time in twelve years the North East has stepped back from the opportunity to build a pan-regional institution capable of taking more control over the area’s economic future.

With other devolution deals agreed for places like Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the Sheffield City Region, the likelihood is that the North East and its cities will slip further behind other parts of the country in the years to come, as local leaders remain unable to take some of the big decisions that could boost growth, create jobs and raise wages locally.

On the other hand, should we really be surprised that the deal has fallen through? The result of the EU referendum has caused much uncertainty across the region given the implications for funding and investment across a range of sector. This has led some local politicians, already deeply concerned about the impact of austerity, to make securing guarantees from national government on future funding a red line on agreeing to the devolution deal.

In addition, many Labour politicians in the area have consistently opposed the agenda, either because they are long term sceptics of the mayoral model, or because they fear the erosion of their own political power under the proposed arrangements.

But most of all, the idea of a devolution deal and a directly elected mayor that would be responsible for an area stretching from Sunderland to Berwick – some 74 miles apart – has always seemed a challenging proposition, particularly given the long-standing tensions that have existed between many of the areas involved.

While Greater Manchester and Greater London are city-regions which span several local councils and are made up of a number of joined up town centres and settlements, the North East is demonstrably a region. It encompasses seven times more land than either Greater Manchester or Greater London, large tracts of which are rural. It also includes many more individual towns and major cities, each with their own distinct identities and far fewer economic links.

The truth is that, as in some other parts of the country, a devolution deal process that was initially designed to boost the economies of major urban areas and city-regions has been stretched to encompass a far larger, more multi-polar and less densely populated area than it was originally designed for.

This is in part due to the quirks of the current local government map of England – for example, the unitarisation of Durham and Northumberland make sense for many reasons, but make defining finely tailored geographies for devolution deals more difficult. Nevertheless the net result is that as things stand, Newcastle and Sunderland – the two most important drivers of growth in the North East – will not now see important powers over transport, skills and jobs devolved in 2017.

There will undoubtedly be many fingers pointed across the region and towards Whitehall in the days and weeks to come, as to why exactly the negotiations have failed. But whatever the particularities of the local history, politics or economics, the collapse of the North East Devolution Deal shows that taking a pan-regional approach to mayoral devolution is inherently fraught with difficulties. While in some places it may represent the pragmatic way forward, it is not the optimal way to improve the economic performance of major cities and their surrounding areas.

And although hopes of securing devolution for the North East in 2017 may be over, now is the time to think again about devolving power to city-regions within the area – where political agreement may be easier to reach, and which would better reflect the geography over which people live, work and access public services.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside all voted in favour of proceeding with the devolution deal today. Although still not perfect, perhaps this would be a good basis to start thinking about some kind of “Greater Newcastle” deal, to ensure that devolution for the North East does not come to a standstill entirely.

Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was previously published.

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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