What will plans for 'Geordie power' mean for the north?

Tyne Bridge and Newcastle skyline
Image caption Newcastle is being offered new powers over business rates, transport and housing

The decision to offer England's biggest cities more powers has been cautiously welcomed in Newcastle.

The Deputy Prime Minister's announcement on new 'city deals' will also raise questions though.

There is no doubt that Newcastle's political leaders will embrace any new powers on offer.

But there have to be questions about whether the city's leaders will get anywhere near the clout that Boris Johnson has in London.

Business discounts

Nick Clegg's announcement will certainly give Newcastle powers that some of its neighbours won't have.

The city will be able to offer business rate discounts to attract in new companies, and support existing employers.

They will be able to bid for a share of £100m of money dedicated to improving broadband services.

They'll also set up City Apprenticeship Hubs to place apprentices with companies and remove the burden of paperwork for businesses.

There will also be powers offered on financing and planning new housing too.

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes gave the announcement a cautious welcome, but said he wanted more detail on what the powers would mean.

He said: "Extra powers to help us as grow as a city and create jobs are always welcome, but we need a lot more detail.

"We seem to have gained extra responsibilities but it's not clear what powers we will be getting.

"I think this is also an admission of failure by the government. They have failed to generate growth and create jobs, so now they are asking the big cities to do it."

And there are uncertainties and complications with certain powers.

In his speech, Nick Clegg asked why there couldn't be the equivalent of Transport for London in other big English cities.

For that reason he wants to give them more power over their public transport networks.

Workable plan?

The problem in Newcastle is that the city is part of a much wider transport system covering five local authority areas in Tyne and Wear.

Image caption Giving Newcastle powers over transport could be complicated as public transport like the Metro system runs across four other council areas

It's co-ordinated currently by Nexus - an organisation where all the councils are represented.

Newcastle could not go it alone without affecting transport across a wider area. Transport for Newcastle wouldn't work.

For that reason, some at Nexus are already asking that the extra powers be vested in it, rather than with Newcastle City Council.

Similar complications would also prevent Newcastle ever being able to control local policing.

Labour has also questioned the sincerity of the government's desire to hand over more powers.

Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn says Nick Clegg is using today's announcement as a smokescreen for more cuts.

That's because the government also wants to see greater localisation of business rates - something which Labour believes could see even deeper cuts in some of the poorest local authorities in the North East and Cumbria.

Hilary Benn said: "With local council jobs going - affecting twice as many women as men - cutting too far and too fast is forcing local authorities around the country to cut frontline services on which both residents and business depend.

"With all this happening, Nick Clegg's out of touch claim to be giving our big cities the key to their future is so hollow as to be meaningless."

Thriving cities

But the Deputy PM of course begs to differ.

In his speech he said cities would be offered: "Power over money, power over infrastructure, power to boost skills and jobs. A very serious offer. More economic freedom; more political freedom.

"A combination that made the UK's cities great once before. And that I hope will help them thrive again."

Image caption Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says the government wants to offer cities like Newcastle more freedom

The government does clearly see cities like Newcastle as the engine for the economic growth they so desperately seek.

But while Newcastle is probably the biggest influence over the North East economy, as a local authority area it is actually relatively small.

So can these extra powers really make a difference if they are not also available in neighbouring local authority areas like Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside?

Might they even suffer if Newcastle can attract businesses in by offering discounts on their rates?

Potential complications

And then there's the North East's largest city in population terms, which is actually Sunderland, and its largest local authority, which is Durham County Council.

I can imagine council leaders there being frustrated that they are not being offered the same deal.

After all the government has also said it's particularly keen that "core cities" such as Newcastle put in bids for £1bn from the Regional Growth Fund.

I remember opponents of the proposed North East regional assembly dismissing it as a Geordie Parliament, dominated by Newcastle.

Image caption Could Sunderland lose out by not being offered the same powers as Newcastle?

Is the government now in danger of entrenching Geordie dominance in the North East?

And there is another potential complication.

Newcastle's voters will decide in May whether they want to have a directly-elected mayor.

It is something the government is very keen on, but there is little evidence that the public are quite so enthusiastic.

The government hasn't made the new powers on offer conditional on a city voting 'yes' in a referendum.

In fact Nick Clegg has gone out of his way to say there is no connection at all.

But some will still wonder whether they will be quite as keen about handing over more powers in the future if Newcastle's voters decide they don't actually want a mayor.than