A public consultation on creating a new mayor for the North East has now closed. As part of this I set out what we should do next in this key moment for our region.
The new devolution deal offers the North East the chance to look again at the purpose of devolution and refocus on supporting people rather than simply benefitting business.
As PCC I have delivered on a strategic plan designed to improve lives as a way of preventing crime, and the devolution deal offers the potential for the region to expand on this work.
Our region faces different challenges to other parts of the country. We are geographically huge, with a diverse landscape; our unemployment levels and economic inactivity aren’t moving in the right direction; health inequalities are wider here than anywhere, but most importantly, our region has the highest level of child poverty in the UK.
This is a failure which needs to be addressed by whatever means possible. Devolution, if done right, should mean that the North East can deliver our own solutions, create our own opportunities and do things differently.
There are elements of the devolution deal which give the North East the tools to address these challenges.
Investment in the transport system allows us the opportunity to bring the benefits of devolution to all our communities, beyond just the core city and business centres, and I welcome the power to bring busses back under public control.
Similarly, if used correctly, the investment fund allows local residents the chance to see their priorities acted on by reviving high streets and creating the right balance of jobs in the many villages and towns of our region as well as the cities that make up the North East.
Further oversight of the skills agenda will allow us to put real opportunity in the hands of those seeking it and a chance to bring together education, skills and businesses so that everyone has options.
However, I and others have some concerns around the scope of the deal, in terms of its reach and ambition, and there are concerns that the Government’s approach to devolving power is not radical enough to sufficiently empower the regions.
Much of the devolution to the North East to date has not been life changing for the people it is meant to benefit and has not led to systematic change in Whitehall’s approach to regional governance. As a region we are still desperately reliant upon competitive bidding into Government departments for funding. This is not real devolution and it is not an approach I believe in.
As a region, it is imperative that we that we do not allow the investment in the devolution deal to be conflated with money we’ve lost in the last 13 years through Government imposed austerity. This deal entirely fails to offset the damage done to our public services as a result.
Having overseen key public services on Newcastle council and as PCC overseeing one of the biggest public services in the North East, I have seen first hand the challenges our councils and NHS face trying to preserve frontline services and protect residents with reduced budgets. I know our trade unions have real concerns regarding this.
Without full fiscal devolution and the ability to truly invest once again in these vital, life improving services, it will be ever harder for us to reach our potential as a region. Again, this challenge is compounded by the centralised nature of public sector funding in England. Something I believe we must campaign to change.
Despite these concerns, I do believe the devolution deal offers our region a starting point. I commend our local authority leaders and officials for securing a deal more generous than those awarded elsewhere and doing so despite the challenges of instability in central Government.
Abolishing the existing combined authorities and starting again with a new structure is the right approach. I support the creation of a new Mayoral Combined Authority.
The people of the North East are known for their pride in place. Our heritage is one of innovation and ambition. This deal, while not a perfect deal, is a good step towards the devolution our residents need.