North East mayor hopefuls have said County Durham will not be forgotten in the new devolution deal for the region. 

Candidates visited Barnard Castle on Friday (March 22) to sell their campaigns to voters ahead of the election on May 2. 

The hustings event was told by four out of the six candidates standing that collaborative working between all seven local authorities is key to ensure the new combined authority is successful. 

Concerns have been raised that County Durham will not receive a fair share of the deal - a view initially expressed by the Labour Party in Durham when it refused to back the county council’s plan to sign up to the joint North East authority. The opposition party instead proposed a County Durham-only deal. 

But despite their plea, Durham County Council joined local authorities in Tyne and Wear and Northumberland in signing the deal, which is due to see millions of pounds invested in the region. 

The Northern Echo: Candidates visited Barnard Castle on Friday (March 22) to sell their campaigns to voters ahead of the election on May 2. Candidates visited Barnard Castle on Friday (March 22) to sell their campaigns to voters ahead of the election on May 2. (Image: Stuart Laundy)On Friday, candidates moved to reassure residents that the diverse area, which covers two million people and spans from Berwick to Barnard Castle, will be equally represented through its decision-making powers and investment. 

Conservative candidate and Northumberland county councillor, Guy Renner-Thomspon said he was initially skeptical of the deal due to concerns over how beneficial it would be to his local area. 

He added: “We had a red line [in the deal which said] ‘all this money isn’t just going to go to Newcastle, is it?’ We have got to make sure that the rural parts of the region are represented, and that’s why it’s written into the deal that we have to have a rural board, which is chaired by Northumberland County Council and includes Durham and Gateshead. 

“Being the mayor of such a huge area is a challenge, and when I am elected it is going to be about getting out there and talking to communities. But the mayor is only one person. Your voice will be heard through the democratic process and your county councillors in Durham. Places like this will not, and cannot be forgotten about.”

Independent candidate Jamie Driscoll also referenced his work in Northumberland, and how it can influence future decision-making. The current North of Tyne mayor said: “I was very keen to bring people into decision making and that money was spread on different projects around the region. Whether it’s over in Hexham, rural jobs in Northumberland or tourist projects along Hadrian’s Wall it’s the same in County Durham. For places like Barnard Castle that needs to happen. 

“How will we do it? A public transport network only works if it covers everywhere. If nothing else, having a bus system that works here is worth the entire deal. The second one is that the projects are all strategic and they follow the needs and opportunities. It’s not divvied up on a one part for each local authority basis, and that’s absolutely the way it’s got to be.”

The Green Party’s Andrew Gray admitted he isn’t a fan of a mayoral government, saying: “you shouldn’t put your power down to one person”, but said the deal will allow the opportunity to do some “useful, worthwhile things with it.” 

He added: “It’s about giving communities more control. It’s a diverse area and we’ve got to make it work for everyone.”

Mr Gray, who works as an archivist at Durham University, suggested Newcastle currently has a monopoly on the rest of the region. He said: “I live in Newcastle and it’s really bad when it treats itself as the capital city of the region; it harms its local neighbourhoods. It puts money into the city centre instead of into neighbourhood services, so it is damaging to have an overpowering centre.”

For Aidan King, of the Liberal Democrats, cooperation between the seven local councils is key. He told the event: “It’s very much going to be about working with [local authority] leaders, building those relationships. There’s going to be a lot of hard work, working with other leaders to get what they want in their regions, to make sure they’re fully represented otherwise the mayoral will grind to a halt. It’s important to get everyone involved.”

Labour candidate Kim McGuinnes and Paul Donaghy, of the Reform party, did not attend the hustings event and were contacted for comment. Both hopefuls outlined their key aims here.

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The proposed North East Mayoral Combined Authority is due to come into effect on May 7, 2024 – with the existing North of Tyne and non-mayoral North East Combined Authority being abolished. The initial £4.2bn investment package within the 30-year deal includes:

  • An investment fund of £1.4bn, or £48m a year, to support economic growth and regeneration;
  • Around £60m a year for adult education and skills;
  • A £900m package of transport investment;
  • £69m of investment in housing and regeneration.
  • It is hoped that the deal will create 24,000 new jobs and unlock an additional £5bn in private sector investment.