PalTV debates: “Durham is a city with a university, not a university with a city”

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In a debate hosted by PalTV today, Amanda Hopgood, the Liberal Democrat leader of Durham County Council, enthusiastically defended her council’s decision to join the so-called Local Authority 7 (LA7) deal with challenges from Mary Foy, the City of Durham’s Labour MP, who described the future of her city as “bleak” under the current government. 

PalTV also invited Joshua Freestone, the Student Union’s undergraduate academic officer, Urwah Mirza, the Josephine Butler JCR President, and Daniel Hodgson, Palatinate’s Editor-in-Chief, to join today’s panel. 

The deal would create a new mayoral authority, with the first election in May 2024. But Labour councillors have opposed the deal, with Ms Foy arguing in today’s debate that it would create a “democratic deficit”, with no oversight power for the council over the mayor. 

Councillor Hopgood conceded that the deal wasn’t perfect but said “you can only work with what you’re given”. She told Palatinate that she would have preferred a greater role for Durham council but given the government’s proposal for a joint authority was both non-negotiable and would provide significantly more investment than if county Durham acted alone, it was obviously the better option.

“Democratic deficit” with no oversight

She cited a report released on Wednesday touting the economic benefits of joining the LA7, compared to the previous option of a county only deal. The report shows that the LA7 would bring £400m more private investment and 2,000 more jobs to County Durham compared to a County Durham only deal. 

Labour councillors had argued for a referendum on the plan but were overruled by the Liberal-Conservative-Independent majority council. Mary Foy said that Durham would get “crumbs” as “other local authorities have already gone so far down the path without Durham”

Councillor Hopgood responded “I would never do anything that wasn’t in the best interests of the people of County Durham and the Northeast” and that any mayor “would be a fool” to ignore Durham, given the population of 500,000 would make up a quarter of the new authority’s population of 2 million. In another spirited debate, Ms Foy asked “you were so against the LA7 earlier, what changed your mind?” to which Councillor Hopgood responded “the facts”. 

Talking to Palatinate, Councillor Hopgood said that, if she were mayor, her top priority would be “adult education” and she would use the increased fiscal and political clout created by the position to invest into training programmes that would lead to better jobs for her constituents. 

“I would never do anything that wasn’t in the best interests of the people of County Durham and the Northeast”

She compared the new authority to that of Greater Manchester under Andy Burnham and told Palatinate that she was hopeful it could give the area she represents clout on a national level.  

In the housing section of the debate, Ms Foy was critical of estate agents in the Durham area, arguing that landlords were “ripping people off” echoing the feeling of many Durham students Palatinate spoke to last term. She also described the planned increase for maintenance loans of 2.8% as a “disgrace”. Inflation was running at 10.5% in December 2022.

The panel also addressed questions on the planned UCU strikes, largely taking a stand in favour of the industrial action running for 18 days between February and March. They were, however, divided over the issue of marking boycotts, with Ms Mirza concerned about the impact it may have on finalists who have “paid over 27,000” for their education.

Image: PalTV

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