I was aware that Mick Henry, Labour Leader of Gateshead Council, had been in London earlier this week meeting government ministers, possibly even George Osborne, about devolution to the North East Combined Authority, a move which would require the establishment of an elected mayor. I had a meeting yesterday with Mick and he mentioned it in passing.
It was a hint that progress is being made on this issue. Whilst elected mayors may not necessarily be the Lib Dem solution to devolution, they are all that is on offer if we as a region are to have powers transferred from central government.
The headline in the Journal today said it all: "Mayor set to be a part of the region's devolution deal". Whilst there is a degree of annoyance that the package is the product of behind-closed-doors discussions between the 7 Labour council leaders and George Osborne, rather than involving the wider political family of the North East, there does appear to be some progress that previously looked in doubt. The 7 Labour council leaders are not renowned for speaking with one voice and there had been a growing concern that Labour squabbling was leaving the region in the slow lane to devolution. Over 10 years ago, the North East was at the forefront of the call for devolution to the regions, until the stunning defeat in the referendum in 2004. Since then, Greater Manchester has jumped ahead. They are the trailblazers, whilst Labour's warring North East leadership has meant the region is having to play catch up.
But catch up is now happening. There is still work to do. Police and fire services are not yet part of the deal. Within the Combined Authority area there are 2 police and crime commissioners and 3 fire authorities. This is nuts. There should be one regional emergency services authority and keeping it separate from an elected mayor makes no sense. Scrapping the Northumbria and Durham PCCs alone would more than pay for the office of a North East mayor.
There are those in the North East Labour party who seem to suggest that the devolution settlement and an elected mayor are a conspiracy to destroy the Labour party. Given that Labour would be favourite to win (or at least that was the case before they took complete leave of their senses and voted in Jeremy Corbyn) their argument doesn't stack up. Nick Brown, the uninspiring Labour MP for Newcastle East, slated the devolution plans in the Journal this morning as "rushed, ill-thought through proposals". Mr Brown represents a view that is quite strong in North East Labour. Current structures and systems have served well those Labour politicians in the region who are in positions of power. Many see change as a threat. Convincing Labour in the region that the likely devolution package should be supported could be one of the big political tasks of the year ahead in the North East.