Councillors clashed in a heated debate as they continue to disagree whether County Durham should join other North East councils or go alone with its own devolution deal. 

Tempers flared at an extraordinary council meeting to discuss councillors’ preferred options on Wednesday afternoon as Labour continues to oppose the coalition Lib Dem, Conservative and independent leadership.

Labour failed in an attempt to convince councillors to back its preferred option of a single county deal, with party leader Carl Marshall accusing the coalition of being ‘incompetent’ for denying the chance of securing a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ county deal. 

Instead, council leader Amanda Hopgood’s proposal that the council secures a devolution deal that is “best for County Durham residents and businesses” was backed.

Plans are underway to create a new combined authority covering Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, Gateshead, Sunderland, and South Tyneside, governed by a mayor who would be elected in May 2024, which County Durham looks set to join. 

A directly-elected mayor for County Durham was labelled a “dictatorship” during the debate by Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wilkes as Labour was accused of trying to hoodwink the public. 

The Northern Echo: Council leader Amanda Hopgood currently wants to join a North East-wide LA7 dealCouncil leader Amanda Hopgood currently wants to join a North East-wide LA7 deal (Image: The Northern Echo)

But Labour fears this deal would short-change the county and it would be left to receive ‘crumbs off the table’. The group fears a regional mayor, selected from one of the North East’s seven councils, won’t have the best interests of the county’s people and places at heart.

Cllr Marshall said: "It’s clear to me that the leadership of this council is out of touch with communities and out of its depth. We have the chance to put County Durham first. Let’s not sell our residents down the river."

Durham County Council was previously considering its own single-county devolution deal instead of joining a region-wide body, but it is understood Government insistence that such an arrangement would require the election of a county mayor was a sticking point for the council’s coalition. 

Several Labour members cited the recently-signed Cornwall devolution deal, which promises up to £360m in funding over the next 30 years, as a motivating factor behind the decision for a similar deal. 

Yet the success of the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the influx of investment that has benefited the area is seen as a positive along with fears that County Durham could become “the little man” stuck between two combined authority areas. 

Deputy council leader Richard Bell told the meeting he has received assurances from the Government that the LA7 deal would bring significantly more money to the area than the county deal. The deal also reportedly received the backing of the three previous Levelling Up secretaries of state: Simon Clarke, Greg Clark and Michael Gove. 

“As things stand the LA7 deal is the best deal on the table. I can confirm the deal will bring significantly more money than a county deal,” Cllr Bell told the meeting. 

The Northern Echo: Councillor Carl Marshall believes a countywide deal is better for County Durham Councillor Carl Marshall believes a countywide deal is better for County Durham

But Labour remain unconvinced at the coalition’s claims. Cllr Marshall said the proposed LA7 deal has “has not got a single penny committed to County Durham”. 

He added: “Labour is putting County Durham first. The Tories and the Lib Dems are out of touch and out of their depth. The public will see they are being misled.” 

Labour councillor Eddy Adam, of Aycliffe West, accused the current authority of mismanagement. He said: “This is a bad deal for county durham. The claim there is no alternative - how do we know? The current Government has failed County Durham through austerity and so-called levelling up. This local authority’s leadership are levelling down County Durham.”

Read next: 

Champion boxer spotted at County Durham amateur club - and delights fans

Council respond to call for overhaul of 'overgrown' graveyard where blunder occurred

'Devastation’ as pioneering North East heroin addiction treatment programme closes

If you want to read more stories, why not subscribe to your Northern Echo for as little as £1.25 a week. Click here