29.10.19

Decentralise, decarbonise, democratise

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2019

 

PSE sits down with Britain’s newest metro mayor, Jamie Driscoll, to discuss his plans for the North of Tyne, devolution, and the Northern Powerhouse.

Jamie Driscoll, the mayor of North of Tyne

Riding on the back of a “once-in-a-generation” devolution deal worth £600m for the North of Tyne region, Jamie Driscoll was named as the first ever North of Tyne mayor in May. Speaking to PSE’s Jamie Bennett-Ness, Driscoll explained why he is championing a green industrial revolution, encouraging community wealth building and calling for further devolution

“Here in the North of Tyne, we are working to get the Northern Powerhouse taken seriously. George Osborne was not a personal hero of mine, but I was a genuine supporter of the idea when it was first raised. Unfortunately, it has been more of a catchphrase than anything concrete. We have to be clear about the purpose of devolution here. It isn’t just about dealing with the underinvestment, it is about local leadership and local decision-making. It’s the idea that politicians shouldn’t be telling teachers how to teach in their classrooms, or telling the police how to police the streets. There needs to be accountability, but when it comes to regional governance, these powers should be in the regions.”

“The blight of government is when it starts thinking of a one-size-fits-all approach - there is no such thing. That’s the strength of regional devolution. Some things will work in the North East that just won’t work elsewhere. So we will be a full part of the Northern Powerhouse, and we are working with the other mayors and political leaders to do so. But exactly how that will come about is an open conversation. Personally, I think if we had a per capita spend and gave this entirely to the mayors of combined authorities and let them get on with it then we would see better growth, better social outcomes and a better climate sustainability. It is the way to go, but for us now it’s simply down to lobbying ministers and opposition ministers.”

 

Devolution

Driscoll talks about a 3D Britain; one that is “decentralised, decarbonised and democratised.” England is the most centralised of any OECD country, and asked if the devolution deal will help give Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland more of a voice nationally, the former Newcastle city councillor agreed. “You need a voice, and whilst local councils do some great work, it is very difficult if you’re a local council leader to get through to central government. With the bigger voice of the combined authority, unity is strength and we are able to make significantly more noise. England is massively dominated, financially and politically, by London as a political institution, and we have to break that.”

With the £600m funding being distributed over the next 30 years, the devolution deal has seen a number of powers covering skills, training and growth and employment transferred over to the North of Tyne Combined Authority. There are now eight metro mayors, covering a combined population of 11.9 million people outside of London, although the pace of change is still far too slow for some.

 

Transportation

“One of the biggest problems we face here in the North East is we are three times the size of Greater London, and yet we don’t have a single metre of three-lane motorway. My patch is the largest of any metro mayor, but you can’t go north to south or east to west without having to drive on a single carriageway road. If the Department for Transport was based in Newcastle, no one would have had to produce commissions and lobby ministers like we have done, the transport infrastructure here would simply be better. That’s the type of issue we’re facing regarding a lot of things; decisions are made a long way from here and we need someone who will shout about our region. The time has now passed for us to be building motorways, but we still need major investment in transport, education, housing and skills. Doing better for the people doesn’t mean just trying to get more money out of Whitehall though, it also means changing our approach completely.”

The Prime Minister has also previously promised bus franchising powers to the combined authorities, and whilst Driscoll has written to government, nothing has yet been actioned. He said: “We need to think about connectivity, the joiner between different modes of public transport. At the moment, if you want to go on an intercity train to another of the northern cities, you really have to plan a fortnight in advance. If you turn up on the day, you worry that you’ll end up paying three times more. One of my colleagues researching this has said that we need ‘rock-up travel’ where you can just rock up and get to where you want to go, just like you would with your car. We need public transport to be that convenient; if we can do that, we can make travel cheaper and more sustainable. You’ll get to the point where people don’t feel they need a car, and that is how you achieve behavioural change.”

 

The policies

Driscoll’s term as mayor will last until 2024, and the mayor has several major goals he would like to achieve by then, although some are more concrete than others. “I want us to have closed the wealth gap massively. At the moment 24% of people in the North of Tyne area are not earning enough to cover their costs. And in particular, I want us as a region to start thinking in terms of wellbeing rather than growth. Growth is positive, but as a headline figure it tells you nothing about the people who are struggling. A wellbeing approach will help us ensure everyone is living in housing fit for human habitation, although I recognise this isn’t a problem exclusive to the North of Tyne. We have some fairly ambitious plans to be building high-quality homes that are going to be genuinely affordable, and also perpetually affordable.”

“We also have to take this climate emergency seriously. A lot of people have signed up to help fight climate change thinking ‘yes, we must do something,’ and they’ve done so as a marker, as a way of saying this is important and we will deal with it. Parliament in particular have done this, and don’t know what to do next. The local authorities within our combined authority are all actively working on the climate emergency. Initially, this means getting their own emissions down through things like insulating public buildings, changing heating systems and re-evaluating the use of their public sector fleet. The next step is setting up a climate change liaison group which will work with larger public sector institutions, bringing in the private sector and bringing in citizens.”

“Will we have completed this all within five years? Unless we have some serious help from central government then I think the answer is no. But we can certainly have the plans in place to do it. And if we can get a government of any stripe to fund our plans, then we will make it happen. The goal is to have full backing from central government, and that’s certainly the noises coming out. The challenge is working through the organisational inertia, and I appreciate it can’t be easy being in central government right now when you don’t know if we’ll be in or out of the European Union.”

One of Driscoll’s key policies is the scale up of community wealth building. The aim is to level the playing field for small businesses to win public sector work, and to start to fix what he calls a broken global economy. “We want to keep the money here, but more than where people spend their money, I want our spending to be creating real wealth. When the region’s spending gets top-sliced by a certain type of global business, those with aggressive tax avoidance policies, that is where I have an issue. They’re taking money out of places like the North of Tyne, and it doesn’t do anyone any good apart from a handful of extremely wealthy people.”

 

The People’s Bank

The mayor also has ambitions to set up a People’s Bank, a process recently started over in Liverpool. The bank will operate in many ways as a traditional bank; you can open a current account and it will offer business lending. But what is different is the ownership of the People’s Bank. It will be owned by people across the North East, and in order to own an account you must live or have a business based in the region. Driscoll said: “The combined authority will be putting money into the project to set it up. The bank would not be state-owned, it would be owned by the people and all the money would stay here.” Another of Driscoll’s priorities is the Citizen’s Assembly, aimed at getting views from all demographics, professions and wealth levels. “If we’re not getting citizens involved in co-designing, we won’t make the right decisions. We need to take democratising seriously, I didn’t run for this post because I think I’m the font of all wisdom, but I do think I have the right approach to asking and including other people.”

“The really encouraging thing is everyone is onboard. My team works astonishingly hard, and people want to come and work here at the combined authority because we have an exciting opportunity in our hands. We’ve had support from business agencies and organisations, the CBI, the Chamber of Commerce, the trade unions and more. Everyone is getting behind the idea that we need the North of Tyne and the North East taking control of its own destiny.”

 

Northern Powerhouse

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Tw: @MayorJd4

W: www.northoftyne-ca.gov.uk

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