I was listening to radio last week, and on came Michael Heseltine, bigging-up Metro Mayors. He name-checked our work in Newcastle.
It’s a funny feeling for a Labour politician, getting praised by a Tory grandee. It’s heartening to have your good work recognised. It’s good in electoral terms. An opposition politician saying you’re doing a good job proves your competence. But you have to wonder what your own Party members think!
The gist of Lord Heseltine’s interview was that decisions are better made by locally-elected mayors than in Westminster. He called on us Metro Mayors to come forward with coherent, strategic plans to stimulate and improve our local economies. Music to my ears. It’s what I’m doing already.
I spoke to Hezza last year, when he’d written his report, Empowering English Cities. It’s worth a read, even if you only look at the 20 recommendations. We agreed on everything to do with devolution. I said, “Michael, I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with the Tory Deputy Prime Minister. The man who closed the pits.” He laughed, and said, “When it comes to tidying up a bomb site, it doesn’t matter which dead economist you agree with.”
So what’s devolution all about? For most people, politics isn’t particularly engaging at the best of times. Constitutional reform is unlikely to inspire many chart-topping protest songs. But it should. It’s about taking back control. It’s about democracy.
I lead something called a Mayoral Combined Authority. The three local authorities of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland are constituent members. They keep their independence – I’m not the boss of them. I don’t manage the bins or the libraries or the social services.
There’s a long history of Britain being run based on what works for London and the South East. Now we get to decide what works better for us.
Budgets that were previously controlled in Whitehall now get devolved to the Combined Authority. It’s not an extra layer of government; it’s moving the decision making to the places they affect. And we manage everything we do with just 34 staff.
We get £20 million a year to invest as we decide. It’s not much compared to the £14 billion a month the furlough scheme costs. But already we’ve created hundreds of jobs. We’re investing in developing the offshore wind industry. We’re helping kids without computers get online to do their schoolwork.
We’ve taken control of the adult education budget. That’s £23 million a year we’re using to fund the training opportunities for the people who live here.
We’ve just secured £24 million for brownfield housing. That allows us to build new houses without encroaching on the green belt. We have loads of old heavy-industry sites where the land needs improving. It will allow us to unlock a range of those sites across the North of Tyne. That means more affordable housing.
We’ve got a school improvement strategy. A programme to develop local festivals. We’re working to decarbonise our economy. When it comes to giving out public contracts, we’re prioritising local firms. We’re getting citizens directly involved, via a Citizens Assembly.
Together this adds up to more jobs, and more decisions involving local people.
This is just a start. In the Budget in March, the government announced we’d get our share of £4.2 billion transport funding if we unite as a region. That means Metro line extensions, and improved bus services. We’re waiting for sign-off for our £10 million a year schools challenge budget. This will get us mental health support in every school. It means better support for our teachers.
Later this year, government will publish a White Paper on Devolution. This forms the basis of upcoming legislation. I’m negotiating to bring more investment and decision making to the North East.
Devolution means these decisions aren’t made by anonymous Whitehall mandarins. Or unelected Special Advisors. They’re made by me, in consultation with other people who live here. Who use the same Metro as you do. Whose families use the same services and live in the same communities. And above all, decisions made by a Mayor who you get to elect.
Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 6.7.20