Comment and news - North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll

North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll’s weekly column in The Journal and The Chronicle


Mayor of North of Tyne, Jamie Driscoll

(11-05-20)

I’m a black belt in jiu jitsu.  The style I practice has one main rule - stop when someone signals they want you to stop.  It's a self-defence style, not a sport.   There's nothing fair about self-defence.  You only need it when the odds are against you.  You'll only ever be attacked if the aggressor thinks they can win.  They might be stronger, or armed with a knife.  You might be outnumbered.   There might be tables and chairs in the way.  We trained with that in mind.  Practitionersdeveloped realistic expectations about what success looked like.  They learned to deal with chaos.  It's excellent preparation for politics.

Some martial arts are competition focused.  Competitors are matched on grade, gender and weight.    If you innovate, and break the rules, the referee will penalise you.  They're every bit as demanding as jiu jitsu, but more specialised.

The rules change a competitor’s approach.  If punching someone in the face is an illegal move, as it is in some striking arts and most grappling arts, then protecting your face is a waste of energy.  This becomes a trained reflex.  If groin strikes are illegal, you'll not learn to protect your groin.  If headlocks are illegal, you won't learn how to get out of a headlock.

This too is a good analogy for politics.  How we measure success determines the policies we pursue.  Consider school league tables.  Testing kids becomes more highly prized than nurturing their learning.  Obviously, teachers are well aware of the problem but are compelled to comply with the rules.

We have a mental health crisis in our schools.  I'll repeat that last sentence again.  We have a mental health crisis in our schools.  Just as it's hard to accept that a martial arts expert might never have learned how to evade a punch in the face, it's mind boggling that education policy has fostered this crisis.

The North East is repeatedly at the bottom of inequality league tables.  Health, wealth and life expectancy are all lower here.  Our ability to raise money is limited.  For instance, the business rates in London is £940 per person.  In the North East it's £300.  Local taxation is not the answer.  Levelling up requires more fundamental change.

As Mayor of the Combined Authority, I'm on the hook to create jobs and economic growth.  I've made a cracking startcreating jobs.  But growth is a one-dimensional measure.  Between 2010 and 2018 Britain had a 34% increase in GDP.  We also had a 42% increase in knife crime, a 169% increase in homelessness and a 3900% increase in food bank use.  A one dimensional focus on growth will not solve our problems.

We need to tackle many problems directly, and that means investing to save.  Prevention is better than cure.  But the rules discourage us.

Why should we invest in cycling, for example? It's the right thing to do, and I support it.  It improves people’s health, reduces congestion on the roads and improves air quality.  But unless it leads to economic growth, I get no credit from the Treasury.  I have to divert money from education and job creation.

But healthier people saves the NHS a fortune.  It leads to better lives.  It mitigates the massive costs of climate change.  All the evidence shows that exercise makes us happier.  And in the long term it increases productivity.

We need a system of devolution that allows us to keep the savings.  Everybody knows that crime, ill health, congestion - all these things cost us dearly, financially and emotionally.  But we operate in silos.

The Covid crisis will mean a cohort of disadvantaged youngsters will struggle with their education.  If we can support them into meaningful work by the age of 19, and get the financial reward from it, we could invest in their training.  We'd have the incentive that Treasury funding would repay us, so we'd invest upfront.  It works financially, and it's socially just.

This is how we can level up.  The rules affect the outcome.  To change direction, we have to change the rules.


(4-05-20)

A year ago on Thursday our people elected me Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority.  I knew that building a new organisation would be a challenge.  On my first day, cameras & film crews outnumbered the staff.  But I had no idea what a rollercoaster year it would be.

In my acceptance speech, I spoke about the chaos our economy faced.  I had no inkling of a pandemic.  But July heralded a new Prime Minister, after the Conservatives ditched Theresa May.  In September, the government signalled its intent to accelerate devolution.  With less than half my team in place, we had to move fast to draw up new plans.  In October we faced a Brexit crisis, the possibility of a cliff edge, and all the behind the scenes planning.  December brought the disruption of a snap General Election.  Those outside politics might not realise that we're prevented from making announcements or spending commitments during an election period.  Then, just as we were ramping up our investment programme, we've been hit by a pandemic the like of which has not been seen for a century.  And a shortage of pasta and loo rolls (which I don't claim to have predicted either!).

I'm a huge advocate of devolution.  At present, the North of Tyne's budgets and powers are a fraction of those of other cities.  Despite this, I'm determined that we make people's lives better, in ways that matter to them.  And despite this extraordinary year, we've made a cracking start.

On my first day of office, as promised, I declared a Climate Emergency.  I said we'd provide world-class environmental education, and we’re rolling out a programme for a UN-accredited climate change teacher in every school in the region.  I said I'd convene a Climate Change Citizens’ Assembly, and that’s ready to go the minute the Coronavirus restrictions are lifted.  We make better policy when we involve our citizens in decision making.

I said I'd develop a Green Industrial revolution.  We’ve allocated £24 million to create jobs in offshore renewable energy and low carbon innovation.  This must be a Just Transition, where our workers' security is paramount.  So we've established a special £2 million fund for workers to retrain for green jobs.

We’re investing £10 million in the region’s digital economy.  What does that mean?  Everything from helping smaller firms 'go digital' so they can be more productive, to tackling digital exclusion.  For example, providing Chrome books (and tech support!) for people who aren't online.  As we saw with I, Daniel Blake, not everyone is part of the online revolution.

I've worked to create jobs.  Verisure announced 1000 jobs after I and my North of Tyne team worked to bring them here.  Thousands more jobs are in the pipeline - although with the current situation, we can't be complacent.

Prosperity must extend to everybody.  Our programmes are helping the economically disadvantaged get skills, support and counselling.  People who've been away from work caring for family members, people struggling to pay their rents in social housing, and people from disadvantaged communities are all being helped.  All these programmes have the same underlying approach - treat people with dignity.  Help them don't sanction them.

All those workers we clap on a Thursday night must not be forgotten once this crisis passes.  I said I'd establish an employment charter, and we now have our Good Work Pledge.  Accredited employers pay the Real Living Wage on fair contracts, and Trade Union recognition is embedded.  We practice what we preach, North of Tyne is a Real Living Wage employer with a zero gender pay gap and flexible working.

I'm proud of the team we've built at the North of Tyne.  None of this would have happened without skill, good humour and sheer hard work.  The credit must be shared by the entire staff and Cabinet.  Plus the staff and Cabinet Members from Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland Local Authorities.

Now we've been hit by the Juggernaut of Covid-19 and the economic consequences that will follow.  I've put £5 million to support our Local Authorities to help those micro-businesses falling through the gaps of government support.  I've been lobbying government to protect our buses and Metro.

There's more happening - much more than one column can cover.  Work is underway on the People's Bank, on the cooperative economy, on sustainable housing, and our Education Challenge.

So log onto Mayor's Question time this Thursday, 7th May, to hear more.  It’s free and open to all.  You can register a question in advance, and it'll be a Facebook Live at 7pm.  Facebook.com/NorthOfTyneMayor.

We will come out of this.  But we have to make sure the recovery is about more than a return to January 2020.  All of the challenges we faced with poverty, inequality, and of course climate change will all exist, and in most cases, will be compounded.  The road out of this will be long, and many of the problems will need years to fix. The United Nations Disaster Relief organisation uses the strap-line Build Back Better.  We can imagine a different world that is greener, cleaner and kinder.  That’s going to be my focus for Year 2.

[A shorter version of this article was first published in The Chronicle and The Journal on Mon 4th May 2020]


(week commencing 27 April 2020)

Remembrance is an act of solidarity

“Remembering the dead, fighting for the living”.

That’s the message from International Workers’ Memorial Day which falls tomorrow.  It’s never been more relevant.

Did you know that every year more people are killed at work than in war?  Most don’t die of 'tragic accidents'  or mystery ailments.   In Europe alone, work-related accidents and illnesses kill 200,000 people every year.  They die because an employer decided their safety was less important than the bottom line.

In the North East, we have a history of coal mining and heavy industry.  We're no strangers to work-related death and diseases.  Thousands of miners in the Northumberland and Durham coalfields lost their lives, or suffered chronic illness.  Not just men, but children too. Next week commemorates the Spinney Disaster at Heaton Colliery. On 3rd May 1815 75 men and boys lost their lives.

Coal mining, along with much of our heavy industry, has now gone.  Yet workers are still losing their lives or being left with injury and illness because of negligence.  Mental ill health from work-related stress is the modern industrial disease.  TUC research shows that over 11 million working days are lost each year from it.  It affects 400,00 workers.  It can leave lifelong psychological and physical disability.

With austerity, staff are under-paid and over-worked.  Our public services are so badly underfunded that some workers are doing the jobs of two or three people.  We could see what would happen.  We warned what the cuts would cause.  These risks to workers’ health were entirely foreseeable.  So were the risks of ignoring reports to prepare properly for a pandemic.

Compassion is not a weakness.  Looking only at the "bottom line" is not good economics.  The economy is not separate from society.  The workforce is not separate from society.  We are society. Work should enrich us, not endanger us.

In the year of coronavirus, this day of commemoration is more essential than ever.  The pandemic affects every worker regardless of job or location.  Millions are losing pay.  Others are out of work.  Many have improvised working from home.  Keyworkers are risking exposure to the virus to keep society going.  Tens of thousands have fallen ill.  And three months since the outbreak, vast numbers of workers still don't have the PPE they need.

Covid-19 has now killed over a hundred health and social care workers in the UK.

We've seen the moving accounts on TV.  Grieving relatives and colleagues devastated by their loss.  How much of this grieving could have been prevented if we'd only invested to protect frontline staff?

The failure to provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been laid bare over recent weeks.  The TUC has made a call for a judge-led public enquiry in to the “grotesque failure” of the government’s PPE planning.  This is not about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.  It's about ensuring that workers are not put at risk again.

We also need to know why the virus is taking such a heavy toll on BAME workers.  Around two thirds of the NHS staff who have died from Covid-19 are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.  As is every one of the 15 doctors who've died so far.  Kier Starmer has tasked Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the party’s new race relations advisor, to launch a review in to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities.

Remembrance is an act of solidarity.  So that we renew our efforts to organise collectively.  To prevent more deaths and work-related injury and disease - whatever the cause.  After this crisis has passed, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with these workers.  There must be no service cuts or job losses.  No excuses for more austerity.

So on Tuesday, I'll be observing a minute's silence at 11am   It's a moment to pay tribute to the ill and the fallen.  A moment of solidarity with those still exposed.  It's also the time to commit to protecting those who continue to do vital work.

We remember the dead and we fight for the living.


(week commencing 20 April 2020)

"The satisfaction of making something with your own hands is part of the human condition"

It's interesting which products are selling fastest.

Of particular note are flour and seeds.  Both are products that need time and patience to use.  We’ll ignore crisps, alcohol and toilet roll for now.  Although if the lockdown lasts a lot longer maybe we’ll see a rise in homemade hooch.

Is it because many of us suddenly find ourselves with more time on our hands? Maybe we always wanted to spend more time gardening or baking, but we didn’t have the opportunity.  Across the population it seems it’s all or nothing.  Either you are an essential worker, throwing yourself in to the massively important tasks that enable us all to get through this; or you're suddenly finding yourself with more time on your hands.

I think Boris Johnson comes into both categories.  If you haven't seen the astonishing article in The Times, our Prime Minister skipped five consecutive Cobra meetings on the crisis.  He went on holiday instead.  Calls to order protective gear were ignored.  Scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears.  At 5,000 words it's too long to comment on here, but it's buzzing around on social media.  Check it out.  The catalogue of failures is mind boggling.

For those who aren't leading a country of 67 million people, I say make the time count.  And it looks like people are.  Baking with the kids; growing veg for the first time, or finally having time to practice a musical instrument.  And do it as often as you know you should if you ever want to play something more complex than Smoke on the Water.  (My 12 year old son now does a great James Bond theme on his guitar!)

A benefit that time gives us is changing the way we shop.  Being able to walk to your local greengrocer, butcher or general store (where they’ve been able to stay open).  You might have watched the recent show on the BBC called Back in Time for the Corner Shop.  It showed how corner shops have changed over the last 100 years.  From being the centre of the community, with the shop keeper weighing out all the produce, to self-service and the impact of the supermarkets.  The last episode showed modern local shops with a happy medium between speed and friendly personal service.

The satisfaction of making something with your own hands is part of the human condition.  This is not a new idea.  Thinkers from Karl Marx to the Dali Lama have spoken of mindfulness and the alienation of labour.  The idea that humans take pleasure in creating and achieving.  As Pablo Picasso said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

In the Star Trek film Insurrection (bear with me here) the Enterprise crew find themselves on a planet which appears to be lacking technology.  The colony’s leader explains, “We have chosen not to employ [our technology] in our daily lives.  We believe that when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.”  In an otherwise unremarkable film, this stands out as prophetic.  How the world will bounce back from this crisis gives us a choice.  A thug can use a knife to wound.  A surgeon can use a knife to heal.  Likewise, automation can put people out of work and into a precarious future.  Or it can provide the time for us to develop our innate human creativity.  I think we're approaching a Beveridge moment.  We need a public debate on Universal Basic Income.

We need a balance between humans and technology.  Technology is essential for prosperity and sustainability - from broadband to vaccines.  The burden we're placing on our planet's resources requires a less materialistic way of life.  Our relationships, physical and mental wellbeing, must be valued more than consumption.  Our work-life balance needs recalibrating.  All of us deserve the time to take a walk, use our hands, and make time for the things that make us human.


(week commencing 13 April 2020)

We're learning new words, and redefining others.

A couple of months ago, who'd used the phrases 'social distancing' or 'self isolation'?  'Meeting' now means sitting at home - after placing your laptop in the one spot that makes your house look tidy.  I've got a bookshelf behind my desk, with Ulysses, Kafka & Varoufakis books neatly lined up on it.  All my Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams books are out of sight.  I guess it's the equivalent of putting on a suit and tie.

So much and so little has happened over the last week.  There’s a new Labour leader. The PM has been in hospital, and in Intensive Care.  Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary – who about one in five people could identify from a picture – has been in charge of the country, albeit briefly.

The Queen addressed the nation for only the third time in her 68-year reign.

Parents and guardians all across the country have realised what it means to have their kids at home, indoors, for weeks.

And people are rediscovering the word 'boredom'.

A new Leader of the Opposition would normally be big news.  The contest seems to have started in a different era.   I did a half-hour interview with Keir Starmer back in February.  We spoke about party unity, different economic models, clamping down on tax dodgers, and pushing the devolution agenda, with more of a role for Mayors in the Labour Party.  It's on my website of you're interested.

When I spoke to him this weekend, all those plans were on hold - COVID-19 is dominating the agenda.  I'm pleased he's appointed both of his leadership rivals to the Shadow Cabinet: a Shadow Cabinet which includes 16 women in key roles.  Compare that to the Cabinet itself which has 6, one of whom, the oddly named ‘Minister without Portfolio’, isn’t even paid.

The Prime Minister was in denial about being at risk of COVID-19.  I can't put it any better than Emily Maitlis:

“You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us.”

Thankfully his stay in Intensive Care was short, and he's out again.  Many have not been so fortunate.  Including an unknown number of NHS workers.

Matt Hancock, Health Secretary claimed 19 NHS staff deaths, at a time when 36 had been confirmed.  Now is not the time to be sowing division, but we will need a public enquiry when the danger has passed.

Parliament should be recalled - virtually, if necessary.  Surely if we have ballistic missiles and remote controlled military drones, we can muster the technology to get Parliament to meet safely?  We need the scrutiny.  Not least because governments make better decisions when they are scrutinised.  There's not just the immediate response to the heath crisis, but the economic recovery to plan.

“The disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone - rich or poor - suffers the same,”

continued Emiliy Maitlis on Newsnight.

'Key-worker' is another word we're redefining.  We're discovering who is really essential to society.  NHS staff.  Care workers, shelf stackers and bus drivers.  And how their rewards are shockingly unfair compared to hedge-fund managers, corporate lawyers and Premiership footballers.

In 1942, in the middle of another world crisis, the UK government produced the Beveridge Report.  It redefined the way we thought about work and security.  We talk about being a knowledge economy.  In that case, we need to think about Basic Income.  We need to end the gig economy.   We have an obligation to turn this crisis into an opportunity to re-skill our workforce for a low carbon economy.  Our citizens need lifelong access to education - free.

I raised this with Keir when I spoke to him.  How people are rethinking what matters in life.  And who matters in life.  Our public priorities need to change just as Labour changed them in 1945, setting up the welfare state and the NHS.    Keir was in full agreement - he'd reached the same conclusion:

"It's more than a practical question," he said.  "It's also a moral one."

I couldn't agree more.


(6 April 2020)

Local Service Champions

Unison, the public sector union, calls them the UK’s “Local Service Champions”. The unsung heroes of the public sector, the thousands of council workers who provide the vital services that keep our communities running.

Local government workers have always been there for us. From cradle to grave, they are the glue that holds our communities together. We often don't notice what council workers do, but they are there, making our lives better. And never more so than in this public health crisis.

They collect our rubbish and keep the streets and parks clean. They look after us in our homes when we’re vulnerable. They make sure we have a roof over our heads when the very idea of a home seems impossible. They help parents provide a positive environment for their kids. They support vulnerable children, including kids in need of care, by working with families, children’s homes and foster carers. They are keeping schools open and feeding the children of keyworkers. They keep social care going, now a huge challenge because of social distancing and self-isolation requirements. It’s our council public health teams who are at the forefront of keeping the spread of the virus under control.

Front line staff need back room support. Managers are redesigning services to meet the new demands with a faction of the resources they need. Ten years of austerity has left over-stretched and hollowed-out departments. This is now compounded with the need to keep staff safe, working from home where possible.

And coming up with new measures to help victims of domestic abuse. Economic abuse is a major component of abusive relationships. With incomes cut and lockdown in place, we've seen domestic abuse increase worldwide. Sadly, there is no reason to think that this pattern will be avoided here.  Kim McGuiness, our Police and Crime Commissioner, has set up a fund to help charities & community groups increase their capacity. You can find the link on www.northumbria-pcc.gov.uk.

Volunteering

Thousands are stepping up as volunteers. If you want to help, you can coordinate through your local authority.

  • North Tyneside has the Covid-19 hub.
  • Newcastle has the CItyLife Line.
  • Northumberland has Northumberland Communities Together.

If you want to volunteer, go to their websites.  Volunteers are offering practical help - shopping for food, calling and listening to people who may be on their own, or providing transport.

Help for businesses

Our three North of Tyne councils are also working flat-out to support businesses hit by the crisis. Many businesses are eligible for grants of between £10k and £25k.

As of 2nd April, Newcastle City Council have paid out over £15 million to help over 1,000 small businesses. In Northumberland, 2,500 businesses have applied to their Covid-19 Business Hub. North Tyneside Council is running similar schemes. See your Local Authority website for details. There's a full rundown of available help on www.northeastgrowthhub.co.uk.

My team are working in partnership to coordinate the regional economic response. This includes repurposing production - such as making hand sanitiser or ventilator components. We're part of the new North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group. This is a partnership of the North of Tyne, NECA, the CBI, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and the trade unions.

'Scandalous shortage of personal protective equipment'

It's heartening to see the respect and gratitude being shown to the NHS staff. My wife is frontline GP. I'm all too aware that the scandalous shortage of personal protective equipment is putting staff at risk.  Doctors and nurses are contracting the virus and dying because of this failure.  I know for certain that the failure to make tests available has hampered the NHS.

The Thursday "clap for the NHS" and outpourings of solidarity have been very moving. This crisis is bringing out the best in many people. When I'm clapping, I'm doing it for all the keyworkers, in all sectors.  They deserve our support.

They also deserve our support when this crisis is over. I will fight alongside them to ensure our public services are properly funded. Austerity has taken our public sector to breaking point and made us ill-prepared for this emergency.  It must be discarded as the disgraced policy it is.


North of Tyne Combined Authority

(30 March 2020)

The best laid schemes of mice and men, oft go awry …

Have you spent the last year planning a beautiful spring wedding?  Have you been painstakingly building up a micro-business from scratch?  Have you finally got your foot in the door of a job, only to have the rug pulled from under your feet?

Rabbie Burns’ poem was inspired when his plough destroyed the nest of a mouse. Laboriously built to protect it through the winter, the mouse lost its home in an instant.  Many of our fellow citizens will identify with that mouse right now.  I’ve had to cancel my family holiday.  It's disappointing, but insignificant compared to people losing livelihoods and loved ones.  This crisis touches us all.  It's a time for solidarity.

Last Tuesday was the North of Tyne Combined Authority cabinet meeting.  The Local Government Act 1972 states that for a Cabinet meeting to be quorate, a minimum number of people need to be physically present in the same room.  After the lock-down announcement, that wasn’t possible.  We looked into what emergency powers we could use.  Our brilliant Monitoring Officer (lawyer) found that we could use emergency powers to make delegated decisions.   After lots of phone calls with my cabinet members, the Head of Paid Service (chief exec) and I were able to officially approve a series of papers.

We've delegated a paper to prepare for an economic recovery.  Our Green Industrial Revolution paper supports green energy and low carbon industries.   It enables workers to retrain for new jobs in the green economy: these will be key planks in the economic recovery.

The first duty of national government is to keep its citizens safe.  That’s the basic deal – we pay our taxes and the government keeps us safe.  But how does the government mobilise a national emergency effort when everything is in private hands?

Like our entire food supply chain - problems with panic buying and shortages were left to supermarkets to sort out.  They're trying to do their bit, with rationing, queuing, and letting NHS workers in before the stores open.  But this was inevitably reactive - a response to empty shelves and packed shops after they'd already happened.

We’ve seen price-hikes from some traders.  My local greengrocer has had to close.  They can't get the produce.   Supermarkets are buying up the wholesale fruit and veg at inflated prices.  I’m not saying privatise the supermarkets.  But as a country we need work out how to guarantee the basic needs of the people.  The fact that millions used food banks before this crisis proves our system was already broken. Even after Covid-19 has passed, we'll see climate instability affect global food supplies.  Britain produces only 53% of its food.

In a global emergency we cannot guarantee the help of our trading partners overseas.  It's not just about trade deals and goodwill - their borders might be closed.  Their crops might be destroyed by extreme weather.  The government has called on companies to make respirators.  This shows the importance of our manufacturing base.  The transport networks are crucial for getting to work and getting your shopping.  This means integrated public transport, including railways owned by the public.  Millions working from home means the broadband network is vital.  And yet too many have poor connectivity.  Britain needs to develop our scientific base and increase our own research and development.   We need to make our own pharmaceuticals.  This requires strategy and foresight.  We can't leave it to a blind free market.

In Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the mice are a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings.  They commissioned the construction of the Earth to find the Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything.  (The answer is, of course, 42.)  When their plans go wrong they lament that "the best laid plans of mice" don't always work out.

It's not possible to know when a pandemic will hit.  Or a flood, or a hurricane.  But we know they will at some point.   What a government has to plan for is the capacity to deal with it.


Our Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, interviews the candidates for the Labour leadership

News bulletins from the Mayor's Office

Corona virus – the latest regional updates

April 3, 2020

Citylife Line (updated 8 April 2020, 09:45) Citylife Line is a new service that has been launched to help harness the outpouring of goodwill from residents in Newcastle who want to help the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 outbreak. The service has been set up with partners in the voluntary and community sector for people wanting … Read More