THE leader of a new “super authority” has insisted it will be subject to proper scrutiny, but admitted that will mostly be by fellow Labour councillors.
Simon Henig, Labour leader of Durham County Council, was speaking after an Order was approved to establish the North East Leadership Board (Nelb), a so-called combined authority with powers over transport, skills and economic development across seven councils and nearly a million people from the River Tees to the Scottish border.
Parliament approved the Order on Tuesday (April 15) and the Nelb held its first meeting the same day, at Durham’s County Hall.
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But a political spat has immediately broken out, with Conservative local government minister Brandon Lewis calling for the Nelb’s scrutiny committee to be politically balanced – and particularly its chairman to be an opposition member.
In a letter to the seven council chiefs, he writes: “By following good practice in these ways, the various political parties represented on all the councils concerned will have appropriate involvement and influence in the work of your combined authority, maintaining that wide ranging support and continuing commitment which is essential for the success of your combined authority.”
Coun Henig said he was aware of the issue and, while it had not been discussed on Tuesday, it may be on the agenda at the next meeting, in a fortnight.
He insisted the authority would be subject to proper scrutiny, but said using standard methods for calculating political balance few non-Labour members would be selected.
Durham has proposed two Labour councillors, Joe Armstrong and Paul Stradling – the chairman and vice-chairman of its own scrutiny wing.
Coun Henig said it had been a very positive week for the Nelb, with a Labour Party policy review effectively backing combined authorities, and the body would bring benefits for the region in future.
“It’s difficult to predict what things will be like in five or ten years’ time but these bodies will be significant,” he said.
“They offer greater accountability (than the previous regional development agencies) and it’s better to be working together than separately.”
Mr Lewis said he was very pleased the Order had been approved, calling it “an important step for achieving the jobs, investment and growth all want to see in your area”.