Supporting people to be the best they can be

The young man pointed to the side of his face where surgeons had inserted the metal plate. When asked if the police caught his attackers, he shrugged. No. “They were all wearing balaclavas”, he told me, flatly.

Matthew, 16, was one of 70 budding young chefs from local colleges competing at this year’s North East Culinary and Trade Association (NECTA) awards in Gosforth’s Grand Hotel. He had almost dropped out, after his assault. “Cooking helped me cope”, he said. “After a few depressing weeks, I jumped back into it. Right after surgery, I went straight back to college and started cooking [again].”

Douglas Jordan is a chef with decades of experience in top restaurants.  He’s the driving force behind NECTA.   “Would you come along and say some encouraging words, Jamie?” he asked me.  “Being recognised for their skills means so much to these young people.” 

The competition boosts the profile and quality of the North East’s hospitality trade. In a cavernous room bordered with banners promoting pizza ovens and kitchen equipment, Matthew and the next generation of Masterchefs and Michelin Star winners worked with Zen-like focus in makeshift kitchens.  Above them, extractor fans roared.  Around them, teachers, families, and friends watched the teenage cooks competed in their chosen category.  Cold starters, hot desserts, sugarcraft, cocktail making. Judges prowled, watchful. “It’s quieter than a Glaswegian funeral!”, exclaimed the announcer, in a heavy Scottish accent.

“Cooking is my passion”, said Jasmine, 19, from Newcastle College. She started four years ago and now gains experience – and wages – in a professional kitchen.  She’s calm, softly spoken, confident. “You’ve got to put a lot of work in to make your name”, she told me. Later, her chocolate orange fondant, flambéed with orange liquor won second place in the Hot Dessert category.

As the day went on, the medals, trophies, and awards mounted up on college tables and around necks. Rewards reaped from years of investment. Investment by, and into, these young people. Thousands of hours of graft spent in classrooms and hot kitchens. Carving out a future. Chasing a dream.

Clearly, the competition is about so much more than just who can make the best venison terrine or decorate a cake. “Getting students involved gives them a lot of confidence and broadens their horizons”, remarked Michael Dodds, Chef Lecturer at Newcastle College, and mentor to many of the day’s winners. “It’s massively beneficial for them.”

I left school at sixteen, the same age as many of the young chefs in that room. In the depths of the Thatcher recession, good jobs were scarce.  Now, as the elected Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, my primary purpose is to create jobs. Good jobs.

And creating jobs is exactly what we’re doing. Over 4,500 and counting – backed by our Good Work Pledge, which means fair pay, workers are listened to and looked after, and get the chance of training and progression.  Jobs for people like Jasmine, and Matthew – who would later win joint silver for his fish preparation skills, fastidiously filleting and presenting the cuts for the judges to scrutinise.  Who pushed himself to compete in a packed room, despite his horrific ordeal leaving him feeling anxious in crowds.  Whose resilience, grit, and dedication will be invaluable to any employer.

Walking around that hall, the camaraderie between the students was palpable.  The tension of the competition visceral.  Everywhere I looked I could see investment. A teenager who’d dedicated hundreds of hours into perfecting her craft. A teacher who’d spent years mentoring his students. Recruiters – from local companies such as the Inn Collection to national organisations like The Royal Navy – looking to invest in these young people’s futures. The event organisers putting their time and money into giving the next generation a platform, investing in their own replacements.

Phrases like “helping them reach their full potential” are so overused they’ve become clichés. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in them. Everything in that room that day was about exactly that: supporting people to be the best they can. When asked what inspired him, Matthew replied “I try to make myself the inspiration”. And by the end of that day, he’d done exactly that.

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16 May 22

We need a vision of a better future

It’s traditional on election night for politicians to spin the results. 

“Our retention of Dunny-on-the-Wold, albeit with a reduced majority, shows that everyone thinks we’re doing a fantastic job and we’ll win the next election!” says one politician.  “But,” replies his opponent, “you’ve lost two seats in Birmingham Nicepart, which shows we’ll win the next election and the one after that!”  I can see why parties send people out to big-up their results, but I’m not sure we learn anything useful. 

So it was refreshing to see several outgoing Tory council leaders blame their losses on the swamp of sleaze their party leader is dragging them through.  Politics is crying out for more honesty.

Congratulations to every councillor who won, whatever your party.  Being a councillor is hard work and underappreciated.  Commiserations to all those who lost.  Thank you for standing – putting yourself forward takes courage.  Without contested elections, there would be no democracy. 

In case you’ve missed it, Labour did solidly in Tyne & Wear.  Press reports that Labour was in danger of losing Sunderland proved to be hype.  Sunderland’s Labour council have done some sterling work – and should be rightly proud of being a Real Living Wage employer.  That extra £40 a week in low paid workers’ pockets is vital.  And reducing poverty saves our public services money in the long run. 

Labour remains solidly in control of South Tyneside, even with some new Greens elected.  No net change in North Tyneside.  Newcastle and Gateshead haven’t elected a Conservative for 30 years.  These are strong results, considering a decade of budget cuts from central government.  Councils are strong-armed into putting up council tax or else cut core functions like children’s services to dangerous levels.    

Trying to predict the next General Election from Thursday’s results is like predicting next year’s weather.  Yet the commentary is surprisingly uniform.  Journalists across the political specturm all have a similar take.  Labour is largely where it was in 2018, and Mr Johnson has gone from electoral asset to electoral millstone. 

One reason Labour hasn’t surged nationally is that Britain’s political discourse is mired in reality TV politics.  Wallpapergate, Partygate, Tractor-porn-gate.  I’m waiting for a scandal to emerge about a large external door in Parliament, then we can have Gategate. 

These are serious matters.  The PM lying to Parliament would be a resigning matter if there was any honour involved.  But it’s detracting from running the country.  Labour proposed a Windfall tax to help with energy bills.  But how much serious analysis has it had in the news?  We rarely get more than a soundbite.  That cascades into conversations at dinner tables and pubs, where people are better informed about the PM’s birthday cake than his economic policies.  

In my election acceptance speech three years ago, I spoke about chaos.  The chaos of a private rented sector where people can be kicked out of their home at a month’s notice.  The chaotic housing market where our young people can’t afford to live where they grew up.  The chaotic transport system where passengers don’t know if the bus will turn up.  The chaos small business owners face, who don’t know if corporations will pay their bills.  The chaotic funding system for our charities and voluntary sector who don’t know what income they will have from year to year.  The chaos working people face, living from week to week, not knowing if they can pay their bills while their debts mount. 

Some people say the Johnson government is chaotic and incompetent.  But if their objective is making the rich richer, they are extremely competent.  Chaos works in Mr Johnson’s favour.  Perhaps Sir Keir should label him Captain Chaos. 

To cut through requires a plan to deal with the root cause of the chaos: a dog-eat-dog ideology and an economic system that that prioritises the interests of the ultra-rich at the expense of the working people who produce the wealth. 

People want to be shown there’s a way out.  In a world of galloping poverty, climate breakdown, and global instability, they want some hope.  So yes, call out corrupt politicians.  But more importantly, we need a vision of a better future. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 9 May 22

Who do we want to run the country?

Door knocking at election time brings many benefits. Gentle exercise, catching some sunshine, and of course, talking with the public.

An unexpected benefit is seeing the vast diversity of front gardens.  From manicured lawns and colourful tulips, to weeds and piles of rubble. I’ve concluded, in a totally unscientific way, that there’s a correlation between how neat someone’s garden is, and how likely they are to vote.

Political parties can get a copy of the electoral register, marked with whether people voted in each election. How they voted is secret, of course. But from talking to people, there is no correlation between how tidy someone’s garden is and who they say they’ll vote for.

People do curious things for status. One person told me that since her husband was now a high earner, she was thinking of switching from Labour to Conservative. Status, like fashion, is about emulating people you want to be associated with.

“Do you really see yourself being like Boris Johnson and the Conservatives?” I asked. I left unspoken the record of tax dodging, law breaking and contracts for their mates. She didn’t. Like me, she wanted people in charge who’d create a safe place for her kids to grow up. This was just before Tory MP Neil Parish was caught watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons.

I’ve said before that I don’t believe all Labour politicians are saints, and all Tories are sinners. We all know that any group can have a rogue member. What angers people is the covering up and closing ranks.

It’s a pattern of behaviour. Tory Whips did nothing about Neil Parish for days after it was reported.  Priti Patel’s bullying. Boris Johnson’s law breaking. Not one, but two Tory Chancellors – Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak – have benefited from non-dom tax avoidance. They seem to base their moral response on whether they’re getting bad headlines. This is low status. Any truly upstanding citizen would condemn it.

One Tory voter told me that although sleaze was a problem, Mr Johnson had led the country well through the pandemic. I didn’t ask which newspaper she reads.

I mentioned that I was North of Tyne Mayor, and had many meetings with government ministers. That we didn’t know what government policy was from one day to the next. Like in January last year, when the PM said on Sunday morning that schools would definitely stay open. And on the Monday, he closed them. That he missed five COBRA meetings in a row because he was writing a book about Shakespeare, because he needed the money. And said he’d rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than have another lockdown. And then had another lockdown anyway, but only after the bodies had piled high in their thousands.

She remembered all those events. By chance, she had just picked up her postal vote off the doormat, and had it in her hand. “You’ve convinced me,” she said. “I’ll fill it now.”

“But the council haven’t cut the grass,” or equivalent statement crops up a lot. Local councils get blamed for underfunded services. The PM keeps repeating untrue statements at Prime Ministers Questions. Even if a known liar says something, people of good faith still think it might be true. So let’s check the facts. 

In the last decade, the Conservative government has taken £413 per person per year from councils in the North of England.  So says IPPR’s State of the North report.  £413 cuts a lot of grass. 

FullFact.org shows that average council tax per household is £1,256 for Labour run councils, £1,592 for Conservatives, and £1,700 for Lib Dems.

The most typical response in a doorstep conversation is “I don’t know which way I’ll vote.” Politics, at its heart, should be about a social contract. What do we expect of our citizens, and what do we want our government to prioritise? Instead, British politics has sunk into a grotesque reality TV show.

Only 1 in 3 people vote in local elections. Do we want a country run by someone whose only interest – and only skill – is self-preservation? If you want better politics, and better politicians, please vote on Thursday.

* Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 2 May 22

Dignity is the least anyone should expect

Would you like to take a road trip to Rwanda? In a Mercedes? With a single refugee as your passenger? Staying in five-star hotels along the way?  Sound expensive? Well it won’t cost as much as the Government’s new scheme to house refugees in vast camps 4,000 miles away from Britain. 

Announced with great fanfare as ‘the solution’ to global migration it’ll more than likely prove unworkable. Cruelty is expensive.  As well as being immoral and unjust.

The Government has no idea how much it will cost. In a remarkable twist, Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office’s most senior civil servant, publicly wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel saying he couldn’t sign off the policy as value for money. Examples from around the world support his concern.

Australia spends about £2 million a year per refugee held on the island of Nauru in the Pacific.  Even if the Rwandan version turns out to be a tenth of the price that’s still £200,000 per refugee per year.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have made much of the £4.7 million a day hotel bill for asylum seekers.  But that works out at about £130 per day per refugee or about £47,000 per year.  Obviously accommodation isn’t the only cost but that looks like good value compared to the Rwanda plan.

Yet the money shouldn’t be our biggest concern. Morality should.  Rwanda is already home to 150,000 refugees living in huge camps.  The welfare of those that Ms Patel would ship off to East Africa is cause for concern. It has now emerged that the Rwandan authorities plan to evict survivors of the Rwandan genocide from their accommodation to make way for the arrivals from Britain.  

The starting point is all wrong. If I was caught up in a civil war I would’ve tried to get out with my wife and children. I’m sure most people reading this would too. And if that’s our starting point then our asylum and immigration system would be very different. 

Ukraine shows us how different it could be. Ukrainian refugees, at least in theory, get to be treated as human beings, deserving of help and support. The British public have responded with generosity – more than 100,000 people have registered for the Homes for Ukraine scheme.  But only 12,000 Ukrainians have reached the UK so far, a fraction of the 240,000 welcomed by Germany or the 2.5 million taken in by Poland.

You could blame bureaucracy, as Priti Patel appeared to recently.  Which is odd, since she’s in charge of that bureaucracy.  But I think the real cause is a political culture that sees refugees as a problem to be dealt with rather than as people to be helped. If you spend years demonising your fellow human beings don’t be surprised when your institutions fail to respond quickly when you decide to help a few of them.

Many of the intentions for Ukrainian refugees are good. The Homes for Ukraine scheme gives refugees the right to work, something refugees from other countries are often denied.  Every refugee or asylum speaker I’ve met wants to work, and wants to contribute.  If we were to lift the ban on employment for all asylum seekers we’d save money and give people back their dignity.

Dignity is the least anyone should expect. That’s why the North of Tyne Combined Authority has supported the Action Foundation, a local charity in Newcastle. We’re helping refugees and asylum seekers learn digital skills, get online, keep in touch with loved ones, and find work. It’s making a real difference to people’s lives, giving them a chance to flourish in their new country and put down roots here.

The country you came from shouldn’t determine whether you get to stay here or not. It’s a bit odd that if you come from Ukraine you could end up living with Grant Shapps but if you’re from Iran a tent in Rwanda is your more likely destination.

*Originally printed in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 25 April 22

Football changing lives for years to come

When I first walked into the North of Tyne Combined Authority in May 2019, it comprised a handful of staff and a cavernous office on Cobalt Business Park.  I had a manifesto full of promises to deliver, and a small team raring to get cracking. 

One of my first meetings was with the Newcastle United Foundation, the charitable arm of Newcastle United (other football teams are available).  We met at the disused and derelict Murray House Recreation and Community Centre, a stone’s throw from St James’ Park. 

Murray House was built in the 1930s to provide leisure and training opportunities for the men and boys laid off from the shipyards. Rebuilt in the 1970s, footballing legends like Shola Ameobi and hundreds of other youngsters trained there. Then it closed in 2017.

The Newcastle United Foundation, which included Karren Brady and Sarah Medcalf had big ideas for it.  They wanted to rebuild Murray House as NUCASTLE, a modern sports facility, with a suite of classrooms championing excellence in education, employment and physical and mental wellbeing. They showed me the architects’ drawings.  They had big plans. Which were going to cost big money.  Almost £8 million. 

I asked whether they had any financial backing agreed?  Er…no.  Would I mind being first?  So NTCA stepped in.  This was the first major investment I signed off as Mayor.  £2.6 million, nearly a third of the total cost.  With our anchor funding in place, they persuaded other investors the project was viable. 

But then, having signed it off, you wait.  I signed off, with my cabinet, a host of other projects.  Offshore wind investment, our culture & creative programme.  A slew of job creation programmes. 

Fast forward, through the Prorogation of Parliament, the December 2019 General Election, and we’re into the Pandemic. I’d landed our fist big investment creating nearly 1000 jobs, but even they hadn’t recruited the people yet. 

The teams at the Combined Authority are working their socks off, but Covid means doing everything from home while we all get used to Zoom. 

Everything is still new. Everything is still a ‘work in progress’. And we’re in that no-man’s-land that all new organisations have, where nothing has quite come to fruition yet.

Fast forward again to May 2021, and I get an invitation to ‘sign the steel’ at the NUCASTLE site. 

It started to feel real.  Something tangible at last for all of the time, effort, and investment expended by my team.

NUCASTLE ‘s work goes way beyond football, sacred though that is in the Toon. And it began way before the site was completed.

At the steel signing, I met a young woman called Katie, and listened to her story.  Hers wasn’t an unusual one. To begin with.  She’d left school and was unemployed. Her confidence was rock bottom.  No job.  No self-belief. Then she met NUCASTLE, and did a course funded by them. 

By the time I met her, she had a job. She had confidence. She believed she had a future.  She was thinking of going to university.  All made possible by NUCASTLE, with a little help from their friends at the North of Tyne Combined Authority.

Fast forward again, to last week, and the opening of the state-of-the art hub on Diana Street, a stone’s throw from St James’s Park. 

Not only does the hub have rooftop pitches, it also has robot footballs that can be programmed by the people who are using them. Kids might be lured in by the footie, but they’ll stay to learn other skills.  Programming the robot footballs increases interest in coding and other tech skills.

It’s about outreach work and helping people get their careers on track. It covers the communities across our region – and it doesn’t matter whether you support Berwick Rangers or Blyth Spartans.

So, if you’re looking to your future, you don’t have to do it alone. There are people who want to help you.  The Foundation helped over 26,000 people last year. You can contact NUCASTLE and see what they’ve got to offer at www.nufoundation.org.uk

In partnership with organisations like NUCASTLE, the Combined Authority is proud to help expand people’s horizons.

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 4 April 22

The Curious Incident of the Spring Statement

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” asked Inspector Gregory of Scotland Yard.

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” replied Sherlock Holmes. 

The Chancellor’s Spring Statement contained five notable omissions. 

Firstly, he opened by blaming the cost of living crisis on the invasion of Ukraine.  But omitted to say wholesale energy prices had spiked before Christmas.  Mr Sunak is not to blame for the rise in global energy prices.  But his Government has stood by and watched companies rake in profits by the £10s of billions.   And they have form in keeping us hooked on fossil fuels.  A decade of on-off investment in renewables, dodgy ties with even dodgier oligarchs, and a keystone-cops approach to insulating homes has left Britain’s vulnerable, vulnerable. Food prices are up, too.  Durum wheat, which makes pasta, has shot up 90% as a result of freak heatwaves and failed harvests in Canada. 

Which takes us to the second omission, the curious absence of COP.  Back in November, decarbonising was our no 1 priority.  Today’s announcement that VAT on home insulation materials would be reduced from 5% to 0% is weak by any standards.  Where is the retrofit programme?  David Cameron’s 2013 decision to “cut the green crap” saw domestic insulation retrofits plummet from 1.5 million homes per year to near zero.  Insulating buildings will reduce bills, NHS admissions, and create jobs. 

It’s so financially viable that my Combined Authority has launched a Green New Deal fund where we make capital available on a commercial basis and consumers pay for it with energy savings.  Britain is crying out for a national version of this. 

Then there’s the curious omission of levelling up.  For the PM’s flagship policy and favourite catchphrase to be missing is curious indeed.  Mr Sunak might claim that equalising the NICs threshold with income tax is a form of levelling up.  Equalising the rates is obviously sensible.  But the numbers don’t lie.  The 1.25% NICs increase will still happen, and raise £14 billion.  This equalisation will cost £6bn.  So he’s taking a net £8bn increase in taxes from employment.  While incomes from rent, dividends and capital gains all remain lower than working for a living. 

He was almost honest, though, in saying why.   He has a plan, he said, to bribe us with our own money in 2024, cutting income tax from 20p to 19p.  So that’s nice. 

The fourth omission is a lack of any stimulus.  He acknowledged that Britain’s R&D has been poor since the financial crash, along with the weakest OECD private sector investment.  A frank mea culpa, given his party has been in power for 12 years.  Add in the loss of disposable income from household bills rising £1700 a year, and we’re flirting with recession. 

So where is the solution?  There was talk of tinkering with tax credits.  But why not turbocharge offshore investment?  At £40 per MWh, offshore electricity is a fifth of the price of gas.  Cheap clean energy would make Britain an industrial powerhouse.  And let’s change the local content rules so the turbines get manufactured here, in Britain. 

Mr Sunak’s fifth and final omission was his failure to make eye contact, shake hands or even acknowledge the presence of the Prime Minister sitting next to him.  No levelling up.  No climate action.  No plans to fix anything, in fact.  It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to rescue an unpopular PM.    

“The Chancellor did nothing in the spring time,” said the detective.  “That was the curious incident.” 

If we want a better future, we must invest in people

If there was a fire in your kitchen, you’d put it out.  Immediately.  Or call the fire brigade.  You wouldn’t say, “We don’t have the resources to fix this right now,” close the door, and pretend the problem will go away. 

Yet this mindset gets wheeled-out to justify inaction over social challenges.  Small issues are left to fester until they become huge problems – all in the name of saving a few quid. We’re told youth centres that steer young people away from crime are too expensive.  But the money’s there to pay for young people in prison.  We’re told helping isolated older residents stay independent is unaffordable.  But we foot a bigger bill when they end up in A&E.   We hear “savings must be found” from mentoring programmes for struggling parents.  But we pay a lot more when a child ends up in care.

Our community services are victims of this ideological delusion.  It’s been going on for over a decade.  Ever since bankers’ bonuses won out above children’s’ centres.  The saddest thing is if we just did the compassionate thing, it would save us a fortune down the line. 

Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reviewed the Sure Start scheme.  They found it prevented over 13,000 hospitalisations of 11 to 15 year olds every year.  These are kids who finished Sure Start at least 5 years earlier, but the benefits stayed with them.  They had healthier immune systems and more robust mental health.  Savings from this alone would pay for a third of the whole Sure Start scheme.  Yet over 1,300 Sure Start centres were closed between 2010 and 2019. 

The link between youth service funding and knife crime is almost mechanical – when one goes down, the other goes up.  Young people face a greater risk of violence in places where there’s less support for them.  Since 2012 budget cuts have forced the closure of 760 youth centres across England.  David Cameron decided we’d have a Big Society instead. 

Community centres are not ‘nice to haves’.  They are lifelines.  We don’t need shiny new buildings.  We need core funding for long term stability.  Community hubs thrive on a network of long term relationships.  These can’t thrive if the funding is under review every 12 months.

That’s why the North of Tyne Community Hubs policy prioritised strengthening networks where they already exist.  We’ve invested £1.5 million into community-led work across Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland – delivering a promise I made in my election manifesto.  A couple of weeks ago I visited the Children and Families Newcastle Hub in Benwell to see how the magic happens. 

It’s based in the Carnegie Building, a grand old library on Atkinson Road.  At a buzzing ‘stay and play’ session, surrounded by toddlers, local families told me how the centre had supported them during difficult lockdown months. Mary, a former midwife, said the hub had boosted the confidence of her 18-month-old granddaughter.  Covid meant she hadn’t played with many other toddlers. 

The NHS child health clinic runs in the next room, increasing participation rates.  Upstairs people are practising on first aid dummies, and getting qualified for work.  Another room hosts a training course for people learning to work in the security industry.  An employment coaching agency runs from another room.  As does Sidestep, a charity that undertakes patient – and successful – long-term work with young people vulnerable to exploitation. 

I was mid-thirties when my eldest was born.  My wife and I both had good careers, good health, financial stability, and a supportive network of friends and family.  And it was still exhausting.  I heard the story of a young woman who’d struggled parenting her first child.  She couldn’t cope, and her little one was taken into care.  She spoke to people at the centre.  She built mutual trust with the staff, and engaged with the groups.  She opened up to other mothers who’d struggled and came to realise she wasn’t alone.  She’s gone on to raise two more kids, one of whom is now studying at Oxford University. 

If we want a better future, we must invest in people.  Not close the door on them, and wait for the fire to spread. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21 March 2022

Who should we value in our society?

Who should we value in our society?  The Key workers who kept our communities going throughout the pandemic, or the Russian oligarchs whose dirty money sloshes around the City of London? The health service workers who risked their lives to look after our loved ones, or the PM’s political cronies?

“Sir Gavin Williamson.”  If you don’t remember him, I’ll remind you.  Sacked as Defence Secretary by Theresa May for leaking about Huwei and the UK’s 5G network.  He denies it.  Then sacked by Mr Johnson in September last year, as Education Secretary this time.  Remember 2020 A-levels fiasco?  The dodgy algorithm that marked down kids from disadvantaged areas?  That was Mr Williamson, now Sir Gavin.  It brings to mind Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

The PM didn’t even attempt to justify Sir Gavin’s knighthood.  When he was Tory Chief Whip, he kept a tarantula in his office.  More than one Conservative politician I’ve worked with has described him in terms that are unprintable in a respectable newspaper.  So why knight him?  Maybe it was services to Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign.  Either that or “Services to ineptitude.” 

The Government now talks tough on Russia.  But the cosying up to Kremlin-backed oligarchs has earned Britain’s capital city the nickname Londongrad. Transparency International estimates that Kremlin-connected dirty money has snaffled up £1.5 billion worth of luxury property.  London property has provided fertile ground to bury suspicious wealth for years. 

It’s not the only indulgence.  Since 2008, 12,000 of the global super rich have purchased indefinite UK residency via the “golden visa” scheme.  It’s described as a gold-plated invitation to launder money.  A £2m “investment” buys residency within five years.  £10m shortens it to two years.  The “investment” can be buying property.  And later selling it.  Through shell companies.  Compare and contrast with the Home Office’s abysmal visa performance for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.  

I’m not a fan of the honours system.  At least not for leading politicians and wealthy businesspeople.  These jobs come with enough prestige or money.  Sometimes both.  What about the charity volunteers?  What about those who really keep the country running, but go unnoticed, and barely rewarded?  Bus and train drivers, refuse workers, environmental health inspectors, social care workers, NHS staff, classroom assistants and teachers.  All in the front line through the pandemic. 

Austerity meant a lost decade for pay.  Council care workers in 2021 are down more than £1,600 a year in real terms compared to 2010.  Their latest pay offer is 1.75%, while inflation surges to 8%.  Nurses’ real wages are down more than £2,700 a year since 2010, but are getting just 3%.  Yet billionaires got 54% richer through the pandemic. 

I’m sure you’re all too aware that household energy bills are rocketing by an average of £700 next month, and a further £1000 in the Autumn.  But it’s not costing any more to pump it out of the ground.  Prices are rising by 54%, but workers in those industries are not getting a 54% pay rise.  Someone, somewhere is making an absolute fortune out of this.  I’ll bet dimes to dollars it’s billionaires. 

The Spring Statement is next week, 23rd March.  We’ll see whose side the Chancellor is on.  Will he watch millions of Britons slide into poverty?  Choosing between heating and eating, trapping people in a cycle of debt?

Or will he cancel the National Insurance rises – taxes on working people?  Restore the £20 a week Universal Credit taken away from 6 million families last October, 66,000 in North of Tyne.  Will he uprate benefits for families and people with disabilities in line with inflation?  Do anything about the 2.5 million people so desperate they used food banks last year? 

I hope I’m wrong, but my guess Mr Sunak will say Britain can’t afford it.  I disagree.  A wealth tax on Britain’s richest 1% would raise £70bn to £130bn per year.  Anyone with net assets over £3.4 million would pay 1% of their wealth, each year.  So if your house, shares, savings, all add up to £4 million, you pay £6000 a year.  Sounds fair to me. 

What Britain can’t afford is the rich getting richer while poverty crushes our people.

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 14 March 2022

Where has all the money gone?

I spoke to a young mother, while canvassing in Ferryhill.  She works two part-time, minimum-wage jobs, in Chester-le-Street.  There’s one unreliable bus an hour, and it costs her £19.80 for transport and childcare.

She leaves the house at 8am to drop her daughter off, and she gets home at 4pm. 

It’s taking her 8 hours to earn less than £17.00 net wages.

And she can’t see where it ends.  She said, “People say ‘you’ve got to learn to manage your money’ – but I’m on top of every penny.”

She’s working all hours to build a better life for her little girl.  But she’s worried she’ll be in the same position in 20 years’ time.  She can’t see a way out of it.

In the 70s and early 80s, we had park keepers.  We had youth clubs.  We had bus conductors, who helped with your pram, or your shopping.

My Mam worked part-time as a telephonist.  My Dad was a shift worker at ICI.  With four kids, they could still afford to buy a house when they were young. 

I left school at 16, and worked in a factory.  If you wanted new materials, you filled out an order.  Someone in the typing pool (remember them?) typed a letter, put it in an envelope, and posted it to the supplier.  These days, you just scan a code.

Productivity has leapt forwards with computers and the internet.   Every job is way more efficient now.  We even scan our own shopping.  It must be saving shedloads of money.

So where has all that money gone?  Why can’t we afford park keepers and youth workers and bus conductors?

Why are working people queuing up at food banks?

Because tax dodgers and oligarchs are asset-stripping our country. 

Before Christmas, Storm Arwen left 5000 North East homes with no electricity for a fortnight. 

Northern Powergrid makes £125 million profit a year, on a turnover of £355 million. It’s privately owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, previously known as MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, run by Warren Buffet, who has a personal fortune of $102 billion. 

Over £100 million a year we lose from our region, which could have been reinvested in it.

It’s the same in the NHS. And probation. And PFI.

Outsourcing and privatisation isn’t about efficiency, and never was.  It’s about the mega-rich taking our money, leaving people working two jobs, unable to make ends meet.   

I know there’s a better system than this.

The Tories have been in power since 2010.  And their austerity has smashed the UK’s resilience. 

COVID hit so hard because of underfunded emergency planning and preparedness.  Fire and Police budgets slashed.  Ambulance services on their knees.  Local authority capabilities destroyed.

And it’s not just about economic injustice.  732 sub-postmasters wrongfully prosecuted.  The Government spending £1.6 million on lawyers to oppose the victims.  No-one held accountable. 

97 unlawful deaths at Hillsborough – 30 years to get to the truth. No-one held accountable. 

Thousands of families bereaved through Covid, while No10 partied – and an inquiry kicked into the long grass. 

What needs levelling-up is the scales of justice. 

Britain needs a Labour government delivering long-term investment in the health and education of our people.  And guiding Britain through a world more dangerous than I can ever remember. 

World leaders have not stepped up to the challenge of climate change.  Fossil fuel companies make £billions in profits.  Tory donors are granted oil and gas exploration licenses in the middle of a climate emergency. 

The sovereign nation of Ukraine has been invaded.  Hospitals and nursery schools bombed.  Nuclear power plants shelled.  While Vladimir Putin imprisons children who protest for peace in Russia.  He must face war crimes court, as all war mongers must.  High office and powerful friends should offer no immunity. For anyone.

I want to see a Labour Government with the guts to stand up to billionaire oligarchs, whose financial greed and bullying fuels war and poverty, and destroys our planet.  

We must hold our course for economic and social and climate justice.  And not sink to throwing red meat to appease those who play from the handbook of hate.

What will be the future if we trade justice for a tabloid headline? 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7 March 2022

Creating Jobs – Good Jobs – is a Virtuous Circle

I’m always banging on about how many jobs the North of Tyne has created.  Having a good job that you enjoy is life changing.  It’s not just good for the local economy, it’s good for your self-esteem and confidence.  There are no down sides of creating good jobs.  I see it as the cornerstone of my role as Mayor.  Every job we create is backed by our Good Work Pledge – meaning fair pay, workers are listened to and looked after, and get the chance of training and progression. 

If you believe their corporate websites, every oil company on the planet has already solved climate change, and protected some fluffy cute animals into the bargain.  Once you decode the technical language, the claims ring hollow.  Jobswash is a bit like Greenwash.  “This new Government policy will create three squllion new jobs”. 

Our figures are much more tightly controlled.  Because we have to report on our progress to Treasury, we have strict criteria for what counts as a “job”.  It has to be full-time, it must be held for over a year, and it must be the direct result of our cash investment.  So if we bring a new firm here, and they hire construction workers to fit out their new offices, we don’t count those jobs, important though they are.  If a new start-up buys its materials from a local supplier, we don’t count those indirect jobs.  When the workers in the new, direct jobs we create spend money in local shops and restaurants, boosting employment, we don’t count those indirect jobs either.  Just direct jobs.  

So how do we go about it?  We work in big sectors like digital and offshore wind.  We help firms with recruitment and finding premises, and digital infrsatructure.  That’s how we’ve attracted big digital technology companies here. In some cases setting up their UK headquarters here instead of London.  Firms like Verisure, Xplor, Monstarlab, Version 1 and Thoughtworks.  All paying good wages.  And we’re developing a new cluster around healthy ageing

It’s not all about working with big businesses.  We work with medium sized businesses.  Often you’ll find businesses hit a barrier to their growth. Maybe they would overcome it in 2 or 3 years or maybe they wouldn’t.  We help with those barriers through our Growth Funds so they start employing people now.

We’ve invested into Battleship Wharf in Blyth and clearing the Swan Hunter site to make more space for the growing offshore industry.  Our TIGGOR programme invests directly in research and development, so local firms can compete with the globals, and develop new products that get manufactured here.  (Great name, eh? TIGGOR – Technology, Innovation and Green Growth for Offshore Renewables.)  Local firms have grown, employed more people, and are exporting offshore wind components across the world.     

Then there is our incredibly important hinterland of small businesses.  We’ve helped over 1700 with advice and support, and over 100 with direct investment.  We helped local cycling firm Saddle Skedaddle develop an internet savvy customer journey, so they can increase their sales of eco-holidays, and employ more staff.   We’ve helped local joinery firm Damian Cronin digitise their production.  They’ve now employed more joiners and apprentices, and are exporting to Japan.  All the new jobs in these small firms add up.  This is investment in the real economy – in firms that pay their taxes and pay their workers properly.

We’re directly investing in rural areas with our Rural Growth fund.  Our Culture and Creative fund provides equity and soft loans to freelancers and small firms in the arts, culture and creative sector.  Helping them get online and boost their business and grow. 

Add all this together and we have a pipeline of 4,487 direct jobs.  Our emergency £5 million investment and other funds have safeguarded another 2,700 jobs that could have been lost through the pandemic.  The North of Tyne doesn’t count indirect jobs, but the extra money in our region is creating them too. 

All the evidence shows that more money in working people’s pockets leads to better health, better educational outcomes for kids, and less pressure on our underfunded public services.  Creating  jobs – good jobs – is a virtuous circle. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28 Feb 2022

When one person becomes more skilled, more educated, the whole of society benefits

You’ll have heard of fitness bootcamps, where, in exchange for an hour or two of torture, you shed a couple of pounds. But what about a skills bootcamp?  No sweat or tears involved, and instead of losing weight, you gain skills.  Employable skills to help you find work or a better paid job.  We’ve put £322k in to our first round of bootcamps.  We’re training up people for rail engineering, logistics and digital technology. 

Skills and education are drivers of economic prosperity.  Along with good physical and mental health, they create a virtuous circle.  People with money left over at the end of the month are more resilient.  Over time, they are healthier.  And kids from households with higher incomes go on to higher educational attainment.  But too many people are not in this loop – caught instead in the vicious circle of long hours, low pay, mounting debt, and increasing stress. 

We’re building an economy based on good work, with a foundation of well paid and secure green jobs.  We know everyone needs to benefit.  That’s why we’ve got a strategic skills plan in place.  No one should be stuck in unemployment or a dead-end job with blunted life opportunities. 

The North of Tyne has a devolved Adult Education Budget of £24 million a year.  In our first year we got 28,800 people enrolled in formal training courses – 70% of whom were previously unemployed. 

Because we control the fund, we have flexibility.  When central government controlled it, there was a hit-and-miss approach to what worked.  We’ve increased enrolments by over 10% on the same budget – not bad during a pandemic when buildings were closed for months at a time. 

Learning new skills can be daunting for people – especially older workers.  So we provide wrap-around support to boost new learners’ confidence.  We’re funding programmes close to the people who need support.  Catering and food hygiene training with the Cedarwood Trust in North Shields.   Language and IT skills with Action Foundation in Newcastle, who support refugees.  And Forward Assist in Dudley are helping armed forces veterans transition into civilian employment. 

But I’m battling with the Department of Education (DfE) to keep this local flexibility.  The new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill going through Parliament wants to have a central register.  So we’ll only be able to fund projects through providers who DfE have vetted – with extra costs and months of delays. 

Our local knowledge reaches people who most need support.  Our DiversityNE project, in partnership with the North East Autism Society, helps people with neurodiversity.  One-to-one employment support, in-work support, and support from peers with similar conditions is making a huge difference to people’s lives. 

Our Northern Directions programme, with Groundwork North East, helps 16-24 year olds through coaching and mentoring from a youth worker.  They develop an individual action plan to overcome what may have been a terribly difficult start in life. 

Our Get Ahead Project, with Changing Lives, helps anyone over 18 facing complex barriers to unemployment.  Everyone is different.  Some people might be homeless, or a have been through the criminal justice system.  Others might struggle with substance dependency.  In all cases this is compounded by financial exclusion – employers are unlikely to hire someone without a bank account.  One-to-one tailored support helps people get employment placements and find a route into work, bringing self-esteem and the hard cash that comes with working for a living. 

As a society we have a choice.  We can write people off, or we can help them stand on their own two feet.  I say we help people.  No one gets left behind because they’ve been dealt a poor hand by life. 

I’ve written about projects helping the most vulnerable.  But we’re helping everyone – including our £2 million Green Growth Skills fund, and our digital skills programmes for people changing careers.  Our Working Homes works with tenants in social housing, 1,425 tenants have accessed learning and skills so they can earn more.  And the £430k we’ve put into Union Learn helps people already in work get additional training and new qualifications, which benefits both them and their employers. 

When one person becomes more skilled, more educated, the whole of society benefits.  

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21st February 2022

We need joined up thinking to combat climate change and poverty

Possible war in Ukraine.  The resignation of a Cressida Dick.  The interminable saga of when, exactly, Boris Johnson’s MPs will topple him.  Liz Truss’s flood of taxpayer-funded photo-ops. 

All political stories, but none comes close to relevance of the cost of living crisis.  The cost of your groceries, fuel bills, rent and rapidly dwindling savings has an immediacy beyond the news bulletins.  The drag of poverty is as urgent as the climate crisis, and it causes long-term scarring to our whole society.  They are aspects of the same problem – an economic system that thinks making a profit is divorced from the social and environmental impact it causes.  In the end, someone has to pay.  And the burden never seems to fall on the mega-rich. 

The Government, unsurprisingly, isn’t joined-up in this.  To give just one example, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has a scheme encouraging people to save energy.  Called the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive, it encourages households to install a heat-pump.  This month, the BEIS select committee published a report called Decarbonising Heat in Homes. It calls on the Government to help householders financially.  

Most of us followed the lockdown rules – with some famous party exceptions – so work like installing heat pumps was delayed.  Now time is almost running out to get the work completed and become eligible for the payments – but BEIS hasn’t extended the deadline. So people are paying out shedloads of money, with the best of green intentions, while the Government sits and watches them.  Undermining its own policy.  It’s like living in a Kafka novel. 

Government could take action. But so far it hasn’t. What’s worse is this kind of incoherence is so commonplace, no one is surprised. 

A few years ago, North East based social housing organisation Gentoo published a report about ‘Boilers On Prescription’.  The idea was that warmer homes lead to other positive effects.  They launched a pilot scheme to gather evidence.  They worked with local GPs to ‘prescribe’ a housing retrofit for patients with health conditions associated with cold damp homes.  They fitted double glazing, insulated walls and lofts, and installed energy efficient heating systems.  The results were astonishing.

Customer after customer reported a positive effect on their health, and their family’s health. Retrofitting produced the energy and financial savings that Gentoo was hoping for – a 25% reduction in carbon emissions, and a £125 average reduction in annual fuel bills.  Homes were warmer, despite using less fuel. 

But crucially, it reduced emergency hospital admissions.  It reduced emergency re-admissions. It reduced visits to GP surgeries, and GP call-outs.  It improved patients’ self-care and sustainability. It improved the quality of life for people with long-term health conditions. It increased the life expectancy of the local population.  And since an emergency hospital admission costs £2,500, it saved the NHS a fortune. 

Win. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

I raise these questions with ministers and government officials.  The need to join up policy.  How tackling poor housing improves health, reduces carbon emissions, saves the NHS money, and creates jobs all at the same time.  I even wrote a detailed policy paper, showing where the money can come from (Google Jamie Driscoll, Regional Wealth Generation).  But it’s like trying to turn a supertanker. 

At the North of Tyne Combined Authority, happily, we’ve got a different approach.

Our Green New Deal Fund provides financial backing to projects that deliver real carbon savings, and create new, well-paid jobs.  And it develops skills in our region’s low-carbon industries.

We’re providing between £200,000 to £1 million per project to support all kinds of initiatives.  Community energy schemes.  Electric Vehicle charging solutions.  Building retrofits.  Small scale renewable energy generation.  Natural capital.  Low-carbon heating systems.

Over the next four years our Green New Deal Fund will invest at least £18 million in low carbon projects in the North of Tyne.  We’re offering low-cost loans and patient equity, which recipients can repay from their energy savings or business growth.  So the fund is recyclable, meaning the money can be spent again.  And again.

Joined-up projects like this seem blindingly obvious to me.  It’s a pity the Government doesn’t see things this way.  But we see it very clearly.

The Parallels Between “Levelling Up” and “Back to Basics”

Do you remember “Back to Basics”?  The John Major version that was satirised by Viz magazine, not the Christine Aguilera album.  

Major advocated a Britain based on morality and decency, but the campaign was ridiculed when a succession of Conservative politicians were embroiled in scandals.  Some lied under oath and eventually went to prison.  Despite leading this moral crusade, it later emerged that John Major had an extra-marital affair with Edwina Currie.  That’s their business, but Prime Ministers should not set standards for others that they don’t keep themselves…

There’s an obvious parallel between “Levelling Up” and “Back to Basics.”  We’ve been waiting for the Levelling Up White Paper for 2 years, and it arrived on Wednesday.  It contains 12 missions from improving primary education to reducing crime.  I’ve never met anyone in any political party who advocates for worse education or increasing crime.  The disagreements are about how we achieve it, and where the money comes from.  This White Paper doesn’t answer the money question.  In fact, it doesn’t even say how much money is needed.  It’s more of a wish list, really. 

What is significant is the White Paper’s commitment to devolution.  It recognises the success of Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) including the North of Tyne.  Given that 8 out of 10 MCAs are led by Labour Mayors, that can only be because the evidence backs it up. 

In the North of Tyne, we’re exceeding our job creation targets by a factor of 4.  For every £1 we spend, we lever in over £3 of investment.  Every £1 we spend creating jobs returns over £3 to Treasury in increased taxes.  The North of Tyne is astonishing value for money. 

I’ve been Mayor for less than 3 years, and along with my local authority colleagues in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, we’re delivering more than 4,487 new jobs, saved 2,679 jobs despite the economic impact of Covid, created 28,800 training courses so people can skill-up and earn more, and supported 1,707 businesses with guidance and advice.  I want the rest of the region, South of the Tyne, to get the same benefits.

The White Paper now officially states the Government position is to expand the Mayoral Combined Authority for the North East.  It’s good news – we’re all the same conurbation.  And it unlocks £100’s of millions in transport funding. 

To be a good deal for the North East, it will have to extend our existing North of Tyne funds based on the population of the extended area.  There can be no loss of funding on a per-capita basis. I’ve been talking to Treasury, Transport and Local Government ministers for the past two years about this extra devolved funding.  It’s now within sight. 

If we can make it happen, it will bring in well over £1 billion of new money to our region.  It is much needed – our local authorities have faced severe cuts over the past decade of austerity.  For the record, I still think our local authorities need their full funding restored.  Social care, emptying the bins, parks and leisure centres, libraries and street lighting, and so much more is the province of local councils. 

The role of an MCA is about making the region prosperous across local council boundaries.  That means transport across our region – better buses, and expanding the Metro.  More firms investing here from outside, and more start ups and scale ups inside our region.  More research and development, and making sure the spin off companies are based here.  The training programmes to make sure these jobs are available for everyone whatever their background.  All based on a green economy, with a thriving cultural scene. 

For me, levelling up is back to basics.  It means nobody needing to use a food bank.  Everyone able to get where they want to go, affordably.  A secure warm home within everyone’s means.  Every parent confident that their children have a good life ahead of them – here, in the North East, if they choose to stay.  Travel is great – but we’ll know the North East has levelled up when no one has to move away to earn a decent living. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7 Feb 2022

Understanding the human impact of price rises

When he was PM, David Cameron was famously asked if he knew the price of a supermarket loaf of bread. He didn’t have a clue, and waffled on about owning a bread-maker.  Johnson didn’t fare much better when pressed by Jeremy Paxman on the cost of a pint of milk.  Conservative MP Nadine Dorries described them as “Posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

We get ours from the milkman, 75p a pint.  Call me retro, or just keen on supporting small businesses, but it comes in handy when your teenage sons have drunk the fridge dry.  A quick press on an app, and more milk appears on the doorstep next morning. 

Inflation running at 5.4% is a rough indicator of how hard prices will hit people’s wallets.  But statistics can hide the real world impact.  Anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe points out that last year the Smart Price pasta in her local Asda was 29p for 500g. Today, it is unavailable, so the cheapest bag is 70p.  A whopping 141% inflation rate for people who are at the bottom end of the income ladder. 

Reciting grocery prices is less important than understanding the human impact of price rises.  Chancellor Rishi Sunak is worth around £200 million.  He built a £400k leisure complex at his North Yorkshire mansion.  It’s not even his main home – that’s his £7 million house in Kensington.  And if he runs short, his father-in-law is worth £3.8 billion.  In 2020, Mr. Sunak failed to declare £430 million of his wife’s shares on the register of ministers’ interest.  It’s not relevant, he said.  I’m guessing they don’t need to empty the loose change jar at the end of the month to put food on the table. 

His insistence on raising National Insurance Contributions (NICs) penalises the very people who do all the work in our country.  If you’re earning £30,000 a year from work, a full 9% of your salary will go in NICs.  When the energy price cap is lifted in April, gas & electricity tariffs are forecast to rise by 50%.  Typical energy bills will rocket £700, to £2,000 a year.  If you’re on an average wage, this price hike will swallow up 10% of your income.  For a care worker on minimum wage, fuel alone eats up two months’ take home pay.  The effects will cascade through our economy.  Less disposable income hits local shops and leisure business still struggling from Covid. 

If you’re lucky enough and prudent enough to have built up some savings, they’re being eroded too.  Inflation is running 4% higher than you’ll get on a cash ISA or savings account.  This is a real worry for many, especially the elderly.  Your money is evaporating. 

We’re doing what we can in the North of Tyne.  We’ve protected over 2,600 direct jobs through the pandemic, and are creating over 4400 new ones.  Good jobs, with full time, secure contracts and decent wages, backed by our Good Work Pledge.  Our Child Poverty Prevention programme is tackling poverty at the sharp end.  Working with families discreetly, and with dignity, so kids don’t get labelled and bullied for receiving help.  We’ve supported over 1,700 local firms.   And we’ve brought big firms here, paying salaries in the £40,000s and £50,000s.    

But we don’t have the levers the Chancellor has.  Britain should have a wealth tax.  There is no economic reason not to.  There’s a raft of research on different proposals.  The basic idea is you pay a very small percentage of your total assets above a threshold.  One example is 1% of everything above £3.4 million.  So if your house, savings, and that spare Picasso in the downstairs loo total up to £3 million, you don’t pay a penny.  If you’re worth £4 million, you pay 1% of the amount above the threshold.  1% of £600,000 is £6,000.  I reckon if you’re worth £4 million, you can afford £6,000 a year. 

A group of 102 millionaires and billionaires have started the “Tax us now” campaign, calling for a wealth tax.  I confidently predict that Rishi Sunak will not be joining them.  A wealth tax is one policy that he personally would “get”. 

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 31 Jan 2022

“In the name of God, go”

“In the name of God, go!” 

I had intended to write about the Levelling Up White Paper.  It was promised within a year of the 2019 election.  But like Godot, we’re still waiting for it.    

It’s the second time I’ve agreed with David Davis.  In November he broke the Conservative whip, voting to require water companies to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.  Is there a better metaphor for Johnson’s premiership than pumping raw sewage into our country?  403,171 times in 2020, according to the Environment Agency. 

Davis’s late intervention at PMQs this week floored the Prime Minister.  “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.”

Johnson was visibly rattled.  “I don’t know what quotation he is alluding to”.  Odd, coming from a man who makes £thousands in royalties every month from a book about Churchill.  It is reported, and not denied, that they are largely ghost-written. 

For his much-trailed Shakespeare biography, he offered to pay an academic to research and answer questions Johnson would ask.  For this, it’s said Johnson got a £500,000 advance.   

I checked the register of members’ interests.  On 30th November 2015, it records £88,000 for “a book as yet unwritten”, plus another £9981 for the paperback.  Perhaps he never drew down the remaining £410,000.  Perhaps he thinks it’s “chicken feed” like his £22,917 a month fee from the Telegraph.  That’s £2,292 an hour for writing his column.  £2,292 an hour more than I get for writing my weekly column…

That same month he declared £274,796 in media earnings.  Of course, he’ll have needed that, scraping by on his MP’s salary of (then) £67,000.  Despite simultaneously claiming his £142,000 Mayor of London salary.  Plus the occasional £94,507.85, two hour speech in New York, or £122,899.70 three hour speech in India.  No wonder he’s had the begging bowl out since he became PM.  That gold wallpaper doesn’t buy itself. 

Remember when Johnson missed 5 consecutive COBRA meetings, dismissing Covid as “swine flu”?  Dominic Cummings claims Johnson was at the 115-room Kent mansion, Chevening House. 

“Dom,” he’s reported to have said to Cummings (Iago) “I want to run something by you. Do you think it’s ok if I spend a lot of time writing my Shakespeare book?  This f***ing divorce, very expensive.” 

The blurb says Johnson’s book, Riddle of Genius, explores “endlessly intriguing themes of the plays… illicit sex and the power struggles; the fratricide and matricide; … the racism, jealousy, political corruption.”  He’s been busy doing first hand research.    

Remember that scene in Macbeth, Act 2, where Macbeth murders King Duncan?  Has blood all over his hands, kills Duncan’s guards, and blames them.  “Wherefore did you so?” asks Macduff.  And Macbeth says those immortal words, “We’ll have to wait for Sue Gray’s inquiry.”   

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” says Marcellus, a minor character in Hamlet.  He knows that fish rot from the head. 

Johnson has drawn British politics to a place where blackmail is openly discussed.  The only levelling up we’ve seen is £4.2 billion used for pork-barrel politics.  Sprinkled across the country, disproportionately to marginal Tory seats.  Nothing to address inequality, crumbling infrastructure or decades of underinvestment. 

Johnson has even lost his Wragg.  Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Conservative MP William Wragg, claims MPs have been bribed and blackmailed over funding for their constituencies.  A dozen other Tories have come forward. 

Although individually, Conservative MPs can display moments of integrity, they’ve all gone along with him.  Defended him.  Enabled him. 

David Davis voted with Johnson and the whip to cover up Owen Paterson’s corruption.  Between them, they’ve voted to deny poor children free schools meals, the £20 universal credit cut plunging millions into poverty, and putting National Insurance increases on the lowest paid. 

Johnson has been venal.  Morally and politically corrupt.  And for what?  What big project?  He’s more indecisive than Hamlet.  He has only one passion, to advance Boris Johnson. 

Lying awake, unable to sleep, I wonder if Johnson recalls Macbeth.  And reflects his own political career.  “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

*Originally published in the Journal and Chronicle 24.01.22

Could you be, Could you be squeaky clean….

It turns out that a serial liar has been caught lying.  That a member of the Bullingdon Club was attending boozy parties in lockdown.  Surprised? 

That Boris Johnson’s premiership is circling the drain makes me sad for two reasons. 

Firstly, it was blindingly obvious to anyone with any understanding of human behaviour that the man was unfit for high office.  He was sacked for lying.  Twice.  From The Times in 1987 and by Tory leader Michael Howard in 2004.  He lied to the Queen about proroguing Parliament.  He said “let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”  He has been abusive to just about everyone who isn’t him – from “flag waving picanninies with watermelon smiles” to “tank-topped bum boys.”

Some thought it a good idea to put a clown in charge, because he would say the things they wanted to.  They were wrong.  A character like Johnson was never on their side.  He is always on his own. 

His 1995 article makes it clear, “… the modern British male is useless.  If he is blue collar, he is likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless, and perhaps claiming to suffer from low self-esteem brought on by unemployment.  If he is white collar, he is likely to be little better.” 

That’s you he’s talking about.  Or your Dad, your brother, your son or your husband.  He displays the same contempt for the rules as he shows for people. 

Secondly, I’m sad because it’s his personal failings bringing him down, not his political actions.  Tears for Fears nailed it with their 1989 song, Sowing the Seeds of Love.  “Could you be, could you be squeaky clean and smash any hope of democracy?” 

What if Johnson hadn’t attended those parties?  Would everything still be alright? 

Take one example.  The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill going through Parliament right now. 

Police can already suspend protests that cause serious disorder – quite right.  But this new legislation will make “serious annoyance” or being a “public nuisance” illegal.  A judge will be able to jail a person for up to 10 years.  Seriously.  A police officer will be given powers to take “such conditions as appear necessary” to that officer “to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation.”

Did you notice the word “impact” snuck in there?  What the hell is the point of a protest that has no impact?  The legislation should be renamed the Father Ted Bill.  “Down with this sort of thing,” and “Careful now!”

If your local beauty spot is going to be bulldozed, your protest could land you in jail.  Not happy with who owns your football club?  Better not protest, or you could get 10 years.  Your employer failing to keep you safe?  Better stick to a strongly worded letter, or else jail for you.  Oppose the closure of your local school or hospital?  Don’t want a bypass through your village?  Better make sure your protest has no impact, you criminal.  Whichever way you vote, Johnson and his ilk will throw you under the bus.  

I asked some police constables what they think of the Police Bill this weekend.  “I joined the police because I want to protect vulnerable people.  Not to stop people protesting,” one officer told me.  Former Chief Constables have criticised it as a “politically motivated move towards paramilitary policing.”  How long before these powers are used by private security firms? 

Protest is an essential part of healthy democracy.  My fourteen year old son attended the protests against the Bill in Newcastle on Saturday.  He wants to study medicine, and be a doctor, like his Mam.  I can’t help thinking how many of his generation will end up with criminal records for peacefully campaigning for a better world. 

I’m unhappy because this Bill stays whether Johnson goes or not.  Whether they broke lockdown rules or not, Tory MPs broke their manifesto pledge and voted to raise National Insurance.  Voted to deny hungry kids school meals through the holidays.  They’ve announced plans to effectively abolish the BBC from 2027. 

There’s another line in Sowing the Seeds of Love:  We’re fools to the rules of a Government plan. 

“Industry without art is brutality”

What do the 1900th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall, the Rugby League World Cup and The Lindisfarne Gospels have in common? (It’s not a Christmas cracker joke).  They’re all part of our year-long programme of cultural events.  Backed with £2.6 million funding from the North of Tyne, these – and others – are taking place across our region in 2022.

“Industry Without Art is Brutality”.  That’s the slogan of the Artists’ Union England has across their banner.  They’re a recently-formed trade union for creatives, and I think their slogan nails it. 

Good jobs, warm, secure housing, public services and a clean environment are all vital for a decent and dignified life.  Yes, culture creates jobs.  But without art and culture our life would be sterile, our wellbeing incomplete.  That can mean everything from a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at The Laing to being on the terraces at St. James’ (regardless of the result). 

Culture enriches our emotional world and mental health. It promotes social solidarity and inclusion. It makes us happy.  It’s no accident that medics are increasingly using social subscribing.  Evidence proves that people with depression benefit from arts activities.  We all do.  That means our £2.6million Culture and Creative Programme is a sound investment in our collective wellbeing.

If you’ve read Dan Jackson’s fantastic book, The Northumbrians, you’ll know our region has deep and diverse cultural roots. A rich literary heritage stretches back to the seventh century manuscripts produced by the monks at Lindisfarne and Jarrow.  Our history of mining and shipbuilding gave us traditions of working-class solidarity and communalism as well as The Pitmen Painters. 

Our programme reflects this cultural diversity.  There are high profile events, like the return of the 1,300 year old Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East. They’ll be on display at The Laing throughout the autumn. Exiled in London since they were taken from Durham Cathedral in the 1530s by Henry Tudor’s men, Dan Jackson describes them as Northumbria’s Elgin Marbles.  

Culture isn’t all about looking at things.  Taking part can be even more fun.  Our Crowdfund North of Tyne supports projects from local wartime history to community film making.    

Our North of Tyne Under the Stars story-telling events, through January and February, will weave together the stories from places across our region. There’ll be free events in neighbourhoods from Hexham to North Shields, all leading up to a spectacular festival in Newcastle in early February (Covid allowing!).  This is the first event of its kind in our region.  Stories give us a sense of who we are and where we belong.  Story-telling is a fundamental part of being human. The North East has a rich heritage, and this event will enable our communities to tell their own stories.

Culture is dynamic.  There is not, and never has been, a fixed and easily defined “Britishness”.  The movement of peoples from other cultural heritages have shaped our regional for millennia. 

Our Hadrian’s Wall 1900 events celebrate the 1900th anniversary of its construction.  Today it’s an iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site.  But writing on a freezing winter’s day, I’m imagining the shock it must have been for those Roman soldiers stationed here. Coming to this cold, edge of empire outpost in the wilds of Cumbria and Northumberland.  Chesters housed troops from Syria.  At Carlisle, Algerians, and at Arbeia (South Shields) there were Iraqi bargemen from the Tigris. Their diet will have changed too.  Food is a big part of culture. 

There’s evidence that some of them put down roots here, and maybe had some influence on local culture. Over the following centuries our regional culture and identity has been shaped by movements of other peoples. Anglo Saxons, Norse and Normans and in more recent times the Irish diaspora from the nineteenth century onwards. You don’t have to go back very far to see that we’ve always been influenced – and enriched – by sharing cultural traditions.    (And Stewart Lee does a great comedy routine on this). 

And it will continue – we’ve recently welcomed to our region families fleeing from persecution and war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  They too, will help shape our culture and contribute to our cultural life.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 10 Jan 2022

What did devolution ever do for us?

Over Christmas, a journalist asked me what would be the big political issue for 2022. 

Let’s separate out the political theatre.  Boris Johnson is on the ropes.  Will Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak replace him?  Who will wield the knife?  Yada, yada.  It might seem surprising, but I don’t really care who is Prime Minister.  Not as an end in itself, anyway.  I’m far more interested in what Governments actually do. 

Over two years ago the Conservative election manifesto promised to “level up” every part of the UK (page 26).  What does that mean?    

Page 29 said, “This is an agenda which shows that the days of Whitehall knows best are over.  We will give towns, cities and communities of all sizes across the UK real power and real investment to drive the growth and the future and unleash their full potential.”  And “We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year” i.e. 2020.  It’s now 2022, and still no White Paper on English Devolution.  

There may be a “Levelling Up” White Paper out this month.  There’s certainly a lot of talk about it.  Whether it delivers what’s promised is a different matter.  The same manifesto promised “We will build Northern Powerhouse Rail” (p27).  That promise was broken in the recent (Dis)Integrated Rail Plan.  Mind you, in September they broke their headline promise that “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance” (p2), with the National Insurance increases.   

There has been a pandemic.  I’ll understate the obvious and say that has been a serious distraction.  But it’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ pass for the Government. 

I’d only been mayor for ten months, and still building a brand new Combined Authority team, when lockdown happened.  It hasn’t stopped us from smashing our targets.  Creating thousands of jobs.  Training tens of thousands of people in new skills.  Implementing our Green New Deal.  It hasn’t stopped me delivering over half of my manifesto, despite being only half way through my term of office.   

So for me, this year’s big issue is: will we in the North East get the level of independence we need to secure our own future?  I will agree with the Tory manifesto on one thing: if we leave decision making in Whitehall, the North East will continue to miss out. 

I’ve been working behind the scenes, and advocating publicly, for wider North East devolution since I was elected in May 2019.  We need to speak with one voice. 

Decision making has to reside at the right level.  To quote Plato, “we must carve nature at the joints.”  International law and war crimes should reside with the UN and International Criminal Court.  Foreign policy should be the responsibility of national Government.  Income and corporation tax should also be national, to prevent a race to the bottom. 

Economic development, though, works best at the functional economic area.  In most places, that’s the conurbation and its rural hinterland.  Buses, metros, trams and local rail work best at the city region level, simply because 80% of all journeys occur on that geography. 

I’ve heard rumours that the latest draft of the White Paper proposes the creation of a statutory levelling-up quango. That’s precisely what we don’t need – another layer of government in Westminster to oversee the de-layering of government.

What we do need is the devolved power to make our own decisions in the North.

Devolution needs to be a constant work-in-progress, though, not a tick box exercise.

You remember the Monty Python sketch, “what have the Romans ever done for us?”  I’m asking what will devolution do for us?

Devolution means good jobs – proper, career-level jobs.

Paying higher-than-average wages.

Eliminating unemployment.

Affordable housing.

Improving our already-thriving cultural scene.

Decarbonising our economy and restoring biodiversity.

Faster and more reliable public transport. 

Creating a region – economic and cultural – that means our young people want to stay and make their lives here.

And significant financial independence, meaning that money generated in the region stays in the region.

If we can get all that, I don’t really care which Tory MP replaces Boris Johnson. 

*Originally published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 3 Jan 2022

Please give to charity but what we really need is a different economic approach

This Christmas I’m enjoying a break from Zoom-world, and spending time with my family.  We watched Love Actually the other day. 

It traces ten separate stories of love.  Romantic, platonic, family.  Unrequited love, and betrayal.  Bill Nighy puts in a great comedy performance as ageing rock star Billy Mack desperate for a comeback, and Emma Thompson’s emotional range is impressive.  It’s unashamedly sentimental, but sometimes a bit of escapism is what we need.  After all, Hugh Grant’s version of the Prime Minister is eloquent and caring.  Contrast that with real life.  If Boris Johnson was in a Christmas film, it would be Lie Hard. 

Every family has their own Christmas traditions.  Ever since my eldest son was a toddler, I’ve lifted him up to put the star on top of the tree, while my wife takes a photo.  We still do it, even though he’s now fifteen years old and 6’3”.  We have presents on Xmas day, and a big dinner.  But that’s not everyone’s Christmas experience. 

Love Actually shows different kinds of family, and the impact of mental ill health on family relationships. But what’s noticeably missing is poverty.  When Colin Firth’s character is heartbroken, his response is to hire a villa in France.  The poorest character in the film is a catering manager who works in 10 Downing Street. 

For millions, the reality is different.  Successive Prime Ministers have rigged the game so the rich get richer while the rest of us pay more and get less.  After inflation, nurses get £2,715 a year less than in 2010.  Police constables £5,595 less.  Care workers – who’ve always been under paid – £1,661 a year less than 2010.  All the technological gains have gone into the pockets of the already rich.  That’s the thanks the keyworkers we clapped in lockdown will get for keeping our country running this Christmas. 

Inflation is 5.1%.  In 2011, the Cameron government changed the way inflation is calculated from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  The old method – RPI – is currently 7.1%.  Old age and public sector pensions increase according to CPI.  But costs such as rail fares and student loans increase with the RPI.  Families are under huge pressure to spend, for parents to buy the latest toy.  Fuel prices are through the roof – and the poorer you are, the bigger proportion of your income is eats. 

Shelter report that 104,000 families in privately rented homes received eviction notices in the last month.  In the past three months, 55,000 children have been evicted, along with their families.  What long term damage is being done by making children homeless?  What costs are we storing up for the future? 

Food is iconic to many Christmas traditions, from mince pies to pigs in blankets.  Right outside my office at Newcastle Helix is the People’s Kitchen.  A charity providing a warm meal, clothing and support for homeless and vulnerable people, it’s open every day of the year.  Christmas Day is no exception.  Over 200 meals were served, and a safe haven provided. 

Hunger in Britain is rampant.  It’s worse than when Dickens was writing.  In 1846, there were 1.3 million paupers from a population of 26 million.  In 2021, 5.9 million adults experienced food insecurity in the six months from February and August!  That’s a 50% increase on 1846, even allowing for population size. 

Boris Johnson will be ditched before the next election.  But whoever is the next Conservative leader will have voted for austerity.  Voted against giving kids free school meals in the holidays.  Voted against paying key workers properly.  Voted against private rented homes being fit for human habitation. 

Please, do give to charity if you can.  It makes a difference right now.  But it’s a sticking plaster.  As Clement Attlee said, “Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing.  If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.” 

UK citizens give £10.1 billion a year in charity.  UK tax havens cost £120 billion.  What we really need is a different economic approach.  We need socialism, actually. 

The story I want to hear is how we turned this around and arrived back at Bedford Falls.

Stories reach us in a way that facts can’t. From telling folktales around a campfire, to reading to our children at night, it’s innate to human communication.

Charles Dickens was horrified by the social deprivation in Victorian England. He tried political journalism. He published pamphlets campaigning for social change. But it’s his stories that made the impact. No less a figure than Karl Marx said that Dickens “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

A Christmas Carol is a classic example. You know the plot. By relentless hoarding of wealth, Ebenezer Scrooge has pushed everyone away and spreads misery to all he meets. Four ghosts take him on a personal journey from being, well, a Scrooge, to a philanthropist. At its heart, it’s story of fall and redemption. Of showing that you can choose the kind of person you are.

It’s A Wonderful Life is another Christmas classic with similar themes. I’ll be watching it again this week, at the Tyneside Cinema with my family. It’s the story of George Bailey, who lives in the idyllic town of Bedford Falls. George gives up his personal dreams to protect his family’s savings and loan business – the American version of a building society. Things go wrong, and he finds himself contemplating his life on a bridge when he is visited by his guardian angel. Like Scrooge, George is shown a vision of an alternative reality. One where George wasn’t around to stand up to the rich banker, Henry F. Potter.

Potter has taken over the savings and loan. Bedford Falls is renamed Pottersville. Families live in overpriced slums. Sirens blare. Crime and substance abuse are rife. Women work as sex workers. Debt and pawn brokers abound.

The film was investigated by the FBI during the McCarthy witch hunts. Apparently, showing the ills of putting greed before social good was “a common trick used by communists”.

Both stories show us that when decision making considers only personal enrichment, we all end up poorer. The drive to hoard money corrupts human relationships. These stories from the past are just a fraction of where we are now. The world’s richest 26 people own more than the poorest 50%. Corporations hoard so much money they are buying up their own shares to inflate the prices and enrich their executives.

Both Dickens and Capra offer us a choice between two futures. That’s the choice we’ve been wrestling with as a country over the past decade. Since the financial crash, food banks have proliferated, homelessness has skyrocketed, and knife crime has become endemic. Austerity has squeezed household incomes. And the billionaires have made out like bandits. We are most definitely not all in it together.
The popular reaction has fuelled the Scottish Independence movement, the rise of socialism in the Labour Party, and a reaction against the status quo that led to Brexit. Few cared about the intricacies of trade agreements or the structure of the European Commission. People were angry that no one was listening.

I fear we are sliding towards Pottersville. The Prime Minister brazens out corruption, voted through by his MPs. Wages have stagnated, small businesses struggle, public services starved of funding and seen as cash cows for privatisation. Levelling up is bread and circuses. It cherry picks high profile projects while schools go underfunded, and our social care system crumbles. People are paying more tax than ever – no, scratch that. Working people pay more tax than ever. The tax havens remain untouched. And the Home Secretary is making it illegal to protest.

That’s the choice. On a personal level you have the freedom to choose what type of person you are. But society can make it easy to be a good person. I’d like to see our country have top quality education and skills training, lots of good well-paid jobs, safe streets, affordable homes, and a good transport system. And all without killing the planet. The money exists. It’s just being hoarded by the few.

The story I want to hear is how we turned this around and arrived back at Bedford Falls.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20 Dec 2021.

Creating jobs need not cost the Earth

The link between our financial system and tackling climate change is not an obvious one.  Post-COP the whole world gets the urgency of reducing emissions towards zero.    

But how?  There are big-ticket items, like building a multi-gigawatt wind farm on the Dogger Bank.  Building a gigafactory to electrify Britain’s vehicle fleet.  Things that are happening right now, with our region at the leading edge. 

But if you’re not a multi-billion pound company, what can you do? 

This is where our Green New Deal comes in. 

I’m often asked questions like – “I want to fit solar panels on the roof of my factory, can you help?” The answer is now yes, apply to our Green New Deal Fund.  Businesses can apply for loans, grants and equity for projects between £200k and £2 million.  Not just businesses, also education institutions, social housing providers, not-for-profit organisations and local authorities.

The types of projects could include community energy schemes, electric vehicle charging points, retrofitting buildings to stop wasting heat, small scale renewables, or low carbon heating.  Sometimes working with nature is the best way to take carbon out of the atmosphere, be that rewilding, or restoring upland peat bogs.  This is the most exciting bit for me: I can’t wait to see the imaginative projects the people of North of Tyne develop. 

They key thing here is that most projects never get off the drawing board.  It’s easy to imagine more sustainable ways to do things.  But where does the money come from?  We’ve done the work and crunched the numbers to figure out where we can get most bang for our buck.  Our Green New Deal Fund will predominantly be loans and grants that projects will repay from their successes. 

The money we have is public money.  We need to account for every penny.  This means robust approval and reporting processes.  I take this very seriously, it’s what accountability means.  If we did every project as a standalone, bespoke piece of work, my staff would be buried under a mountain of paper (or the electronic equivalent – a mountain of bytes).  This is where funds come in. 

By working with project owners – public, private or community – we’ll help them identify where they can generate revenue.  It might be from energy savings.  Or selling electricity.  Or developing new products.  Or subsidies for restoring nature. 

The barrier for most projects is that capital is expensive.  If you need to borrow from a bank, at a commercial rate, your sums probably won’t add up.  Global corporations have mountains of cheap cash, but only deploy it when they can extract a return for their shareholders.  Small, local projects just can’t compete.  Our fund levels the playing field.  It makes it possible for community energy and rewilding to happen.  Without having to pay for the profits of financers – often based in tax havens –  they only need to repay their costs.  By making the money available as patient capital, or favourable loans, we can channel money to do public good. 

For every £4,525 invested, a project must save at least one tonne of carbon dioxide per year.  And for energy efficiency projects it must reduce energy costs by at least 10%.   But it also supports skilling people up for green jobs, encourages innovation and creates a region we are proud of.

Of course, the cost of not dealing with the climate emergency is even greater.  Central Government needs to step up, and invest properly in sustainable housing, in retrofitting buildings, and in clean public transport. 

But our Green New Deal will grow.  Every project we fund will repay the money in time, so we can spend it again and again.  And once we’ve established a pipeline of projects, we can lever in more money and fund more projects, in a virtuous circle.  Every job, and every tonne of carbon counts.  It’s by paying attention to the small business and community ecosystem that enables us to achieve so much extra. 

The North of Tyne Green New Deal Fund will create jobs, reduce emissions, and save money – it’s the kind of innovation that’s needed for local areas to become net-zero. Creating jobs need not cost the Earth. 

  • Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 13 Dec 2021

We urgently need a resilient, environmentally sustainable electricity system

Around 5,000 North East homes are enduring their second weekend without electricity.  People are suffering.   

In 21st century Britain our daily lives depend on a functioning power system.  We can be stoic about losing Netflix for a week.  But boilers and central heating systems use electric pumps and control systems.  Wrapping up warm is easier said than done for families with babies or the elderly.  Kids can’t properly study by torchlight, and anyone working from home or their business is likely to need a computer or electrical equipment.  Access to the internet requires wifi.  At the very least a charged mobile phone.  And mobility devices from chair lifts to wheelchairs need power.  Not to mention electric vehicles and spoiled food in freezers.  I spoke to one family who use a septic tank in their rural home.  Their pump is electric. 

I’m hearing great reports of communities looking after each other, and helping out vulnerable neighbours.  Thank you to everyone who is showing kindness and generosity.  But no one should be in the position of needing wonderful neighbours simply to live their life.  Especially when you’ve paid your electricity bill. 

The last thing we need is politicians posing with pictures of fallen trees or downed powerlines.  Getting in the way of recovery efforts.  Better to keep out of the way of the engineers and technicians doing their job on the ground.  They’re working long hours in difficult and dangerous conditions.  A big thank you to everyone involved. 

But who runs our electricity supply? 

It’s been fragmented since privatisation in 1990.  A multitude of companies run the power plants.  National Grid PLC run the large pylons, and are responsible for making sure there’s enough total power going into the grid at any given time.  The local distribution networks are responsible for maintaining the connection between the national grid and your premises.  In the North East, that’s a monopoly held by Northern Powergrid (Northeast). 

Then there’s the electricity retailers.  They buy and sell electricity to customers, but don’t generate it or maintain the infrastructure.  I’ve lost track of the number who’ve gone bust.  It’s approaching 30.  A system requires us to use our spare time to switch suppliers to stop being overcharged is a broken system in the first place. 

The whole lot is overseen by OfGem, the regulator.  Government gives OfGem limited powers.  Fining companies after the event is no substitute for making them get it right and preventing a crisis. 

I met with OfGem in August.  As we deal with the climate emergency, we know storms will become more frequent and more intense. We also know that shifting to electric vehicles, green hydrogen, and heat pumps will place more demand on the grid.  Our current grid is inadequate to this challenge.  In fact, it’s not even resilient enough to deal with one storm.  I’ve called for a major review. 

Northern Powergrid (Northeast) is owned by Northern Powergrid Holdings, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, previously known as MidAmercian Energy Holdings Company, which is 90% owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is run by Warren Buffet, who has a personal net worth of $102 billion.  

A quick look at Northern Powergrid (Northeast)’s accounts shows an operating profit of £125 million on a turnover of £355 million.  That’s 35% of revenue taken as operating profit.  Before tax, £93 million a year leaves our region instead of being reinvested. 

I can’t help thinking there’s a better system. 

I want companies and organisations to make a profit.  It’s essential that they have money left over to invest in new equipment, in staff training, and maintaining a financial reserve.  But in company accounting, that’s already been included in the operating expenses.  As have the salaries and bonuses of the executives and board members.

Our electricity system is essential infrastructure.  We have to invest in it.  It’s also a natural monopoly.  We need a system whose primary goal is to create a resilient, environmentally sustainable electricity system.  No one should be suffering weeks without electricity.  If that £93 million a year was invested into resilience, we’d be a lot better prepared for a stormy future. 

From Peppa Pig to Lederhosen – it’s been an interesting week

From Peppa Pig to Lederhosen, it’s been an interesting week.

Monday started with getting the Metro over to Tyne Dock for the CBI conference. And the collective disbelief when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland started doing car impressions from the platform. He then quoted Lenin, compared himself to Moses, and after losing his place, a bizarre tangent about Peppa Pig. The assembled business audience weren’t impressed. Asked about the failure to invest in rail links to the North East, the PM said it was all going to be brilliant. Then mentioned Warrington, Marsden (near Huddersfield), Birmingham and Nottingham. Every one of those places is south of the M62.

What a contrast to Tony Danker, CEO of the CBI. He said industry’s priorities are investment in research and development, industrial strategy around building clusters of expertise, and investment in skills training. And gently mocked the idea that Peppa Pig world was the way to level up the North.

By the way, this idea that Labour was ever hostile to business is rubbish. Firms that look after their workers are a blessing. It’s tax dodging, fire-and-rehire, and asset stripping that we want to eradicate. Something we share with every ethical business out there. In fact, Tony Danker praised the work we’re doing in the North of Tyne.

It’s not all meetings and speeches, of course. Most of my job is about delivery. Building links with businesses to boost the local economy. Joint working with colleges and universities. Working through policy proposals with the team, and adding the weight of the Mayoral office to bring people together and get things done – letters, Zooms, and old fashioned phone calls. Plus vast amounts of reading – budget reports, policy reports, investment reports. Being on top of the detail matters, but doesn’t translate into an interesting newspaper column.

Extended North East devolution is on the agenda. North of Tyne leaders are discussing what’s needed across the North of Tyne, as a precursor to dealing with Government. Rural Northumberland has different priorities for the urban core of Tyne & Wear. Different, but reinforcing. Better rail connections benefit Morpeth and Hexham as much as Gosforth and Gateshead. Affordable housing is an issue in Beadnell and North Shields. We all want to create more jobs.

Wednesday, a train to Leeds for the Transport for the North Board (TfN). It was a feisty one. Last week’s Integrated Rail Plan stirred a hornets’ nest. I spoke in detail about how and why we needed the Leamside Line reopening, and it was adopted into a unanimous agreed position from the TfN board.

The Secretary of State needs to sit down with us and find the mechanisms for delivering the full Northern Powerhouse Rail project. Specifically, all five Metro Mayors present want powers on Land Value Uplift. Northumberland Council have been piloting this for reopening the Northumberland line. I’ve been pushing this with treasury ministers and officials. When taxpayers fund a new railway station, the land around it shoots up in value. Rather than going to property speculators, it should fund the project.

With those powers we can build new Metro extensions, stations in rural Northumberland, and superbus routes across our region. At the People’s Powerhouse Convention on Thursday, Andy Burnham was kind enough to point out that I’d led the thinking on this. There are decent politicians about – not everyone is in it for the second jobs.

Thursday evening was Mayor’s Question Time at the Catalyst in Newcastle. After talking about White Ribbon day – the campaign to encourage men and boys to stand up to violence against women and girls, I took questions. Details of the jobs we’re creating. The climate education we’re delivering in schools. Mobility scooter access on the new Metro trains. Improving health through better economic outcomes. Affordable housing. The balance between work and family life. And too much else to cover here. We’re chopping the video up into question-sized chunks and publishing it online.

Early Friday, and a train down south. I chaired a conference building political, business and university links between the North East and Bavaria. The comparisons and contrasts are fascinating. We share a strong regional identity. Far from Berlin, Bavaria was the poorest region in Germany. It grew into the richest by using devolved powers. We’ve agreed to build links on research and development and the green economy, so time well spent. Plus the personal connections – on Friday evening, a Bavarian minister sang us a German song, and I felt it was only fair to reciprocate with the Blaydon Races.

Then home by Saturday night, and seeing the snow and disruption caused by Storm Arwen. I hope you’re keeping safe and warm

Why the Government’s rail plans are failing the North East

One year ago, my column focused on the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP). It’s the Government’s national rail investment plan for the next thirty years. In a mockery of tragic irony, the IRP was delayed. And delayed. And delayed. While we’ve seen £billions on HS2, £billions on road junctions, and cuts to air passenger duty. When it was finally published last week, the IRP was the metaphorical bus replacement service.

The Prime Minister came out with some lame spin about delivering faster and reducing journey times. But if you read the IRP, page 84 says journey time improvements from Newcastle are “subject to stopping patterns.” In other words, the trains will run faster as long as they don’t stop to let passengers get on. Already this year we’ve had to fight off attempts to cancel the Edinburgh to Liverpool train, which will reduce services to Berwick, Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham and Darlington.

The North East invented the railways. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket was built at the Forth Street Works in Newcastle. It heralded the biggest public transport expansion the world has ever seen.

Twenty years later, the Queen Victoria opened the High Level Bridge. A masterpiece of Geordie ingenuity, also designed by Robert Stephenson. By the mid-1850s, there were more than 7,000 miles of track across the country, including two tracks across the Belmont Viaduct, opened in 1856, and two tracks across the Durham Viaduct, opened in 1857.

In the 1960s, the Belmont Viaduct and Leamside Line were mothballed as part of the Beeching cuts. It was reopened and served as the alternative route when the East Coast Mainline (ECML) was being electrified. It was mothballed again in 1991.

So now, only two tracks connect the North East. Coming from the south, the ECML has four tracks until you reach Northallerton. Then it’s just two – one in each direction. All the trains from Edinburgh to London, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, heading north or south, must share these two tracks with slow moving freight and local commuter services. Only six trains an hour can safely use the track. We’re using 164 year old infrastructure.

The Leamside line still exists. It diverges from the ECML at Ferryhill. It travels through the Durham Coalfield, via Washington, and joins the network near Heworth.

Reopening it would give us four tracks. In effect doubling our capacity. We can run 9 intercity trains per hour plus local services. And faster, because slower trains can run down one line, and faster trains down the other. We can integrate Washington and Sunderland into a new Wearside Metro loop. And connect them to the rail network without going into Newcastle Central.

HS2 costs £307 million per mile. £106 billion in total. London’s Crossrail is £18 billion. Re-opening and electrifying the Leamside Line will cost £600 million. It’s a tiny fraction of the investment London gets.

A year ago, the Leamside Line wasn’t in any accepted rail plans. After some diplomacy with other Northern Labour mayors, members of Transport for the North committee backed the Leamside Line as part of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). That was step one.

But Government has failed the North, and NPR won’t be built. The Red Wall Conservative MPs must feel betrayed by their leader, and worried for their jobs, knowing that constituents no longer believe Tory promises to “level up the North”.

But I’m not giving up the fight. Since publication on Thursday, I’ve already spoken to the rail minister to find a way to get the Leamside Line funded.

I’ve been bending the ear of all the transport ministers and Secretary of State about the Leamside Line. Our region’s MPs raised it in the Commons.

The IRP left a door open. Page 114 says, “Government considers that the case for re-opening the Leamside route would be best considered as part of any future city region settlement.”

For the past two years I’ve been calling for our region to unite and working to make it happen. It’s the only way to get transport devolved. And until we’re masters of our own destiny, we’ll always be forgotten by a Government that doesn’t know its Ashington from its Easington.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22 Nov 2021

The Boiling Frog of Climate Change

If you put a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump straight out.  Whereas if you put it into tepid water and heat it up, the frog will not notice, and passively be boiled to death.  Firstly, don’t try this at home.  Secondly, it’s not true. 

It comes from an 1869 experiment by Friedrich Goltz.  He discovered that a frog will jump out of water once it is heated to 25 degrees C.  But a frog with its brain removed will do nothing, and be boiled to death.  This leads to two thoughts.  Firstly, did it really take an experiment to discover that removing a frog’s brain impairs its survival instincts?  Secondly, why is humanity behaving like a brainless frog? 

I refer, of course, to COP26 and the impending climate catastrophe.  “Keep 1.5 alive” has as much meaning as “levelling up” or “make America great again”.  Optimism is not a policy.  If we look at the actual real-world policies, Climate Action Tracker says we’ll see a global temperature increase of between 2 degrees and 3.5 degrees, with a 50% chance of 2.7 degrees. 

What do those numbers mean?  Well, in the depths of the last ice age, global temperatures were 5 degrees lower.  Newcastle was under an ice sheet 300 metres thick. 

We’re already 1.2 degrees warmer, and it’s causing floods, droughts, forest fires, sea ice to melt and sea levels to start rising. 

The North China Plain is twice the size of Britain.  It’s home to 400 million people, and the source of much of China’s food.  If global temperatures increase by 2.9 degrees, they will experience extreme heatwaves by 2070.  Heatwaves so hot that a healthy adult, sitting still in the shade, will die within six hours.  Children and the elderly much sooner.  Similar effects will be seen across India, Africa, coastal cities in the Middle East, and Central America.  What do we think will happen when food production collapses?  States will fail, civil wars will run rampant, and people will flee.  The world economy as we know it will collapse.  Their problems are our problems.  Yet this is the policy path our planet is currently on. 

Despite the spin, it’s not simply the fault of other countries.  How many of the clothes on sale here were made in Britain?  Or the electronics?  Or even our food.  50% of the UK’s food comes from abroad.  Covid showed us the vulnerability of our food supply chain.  If we’re offshoring our emissions, we share responsibility.

And we have to cancel the Cambo oilfield off Shetland, the coal mine in Cumbria, and drilling for oil in Surrey.  In the North of Tyne we’re creating thousands of well-paid, economically-viable, low-carbon jobs.  Government can create hundreds of thousands more if they want to. 

Two things have come out of the Glasgow climate summit.  A failure to meet the promise of $100bn a year to help decarbonise developing economies.  And a failure to even agree we should stop burning coal at some point. 

What COP26 needed to do was agree a plan to phase-out all fossil fuel production, starting immediately.  Replacing it with energy efficiency and renewables.  Instead we got “efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power and a phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.  There are more qualifiers in that sentence than Andorra’s route to the World Cup. 

In 2009, at COP15, rich nations promised developing nations $100bn a year to decarbonise their economies.  Much of that would be spent, of course, buying technology from Western owned corporations.  Glasgow’s COP26 failed to deliver that.  The IMF reported that last year, fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion.  We can’t even find $100bn to save our own planet, when it’s only 6 days worth of fossil fuel subsidies. 

Why did COP26 fail?  Because like the brainless frog, our Prime Minister and other world leaders are seduced by creeping normality.  The idea of tackling the vested interests of billionaires seems more shocking to them than our civilisation collapsing.  So they bathe in the warming waters of kick-backs, paid consultancies, and a revolving door of corporate directorships once they’ve served their time in office.  We’d be safer with a frog in charge. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 15 Nov 2021

About time we cleaned up politics

In George Orwell’s “1984” Winston Smith is tortured until he agrees that two plus two equals five. The point is to make him see that there is no objective truth other than what Big Brother says is true.  To give up on truth altogether.

Good citizens were exhorted to train their minds to only think well of the government.  “Crimestop” as Orwell described it, “includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.” 

On the outside wall were the three slogans of the Party: “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. 

Let’s add “CORRUPTION IS INTEGRITY.”  It is the world of the three word slogan and the abusive Tweet.  But don’t despair – there is such a thing as truth.  And it comes out eventually.

Tory MP Owen Patterson received over £100,000 a year on top of his MP’s salary, to lobby ministers for Randox, and Lynn’s Country Foods.  He was investigated, given appeals, and represented by his lawyers.  He was still found guilty of breaking lobbying rules. 

When the vote to suspend him came before Parliament, the PM and the Tory whips closed ranks to change the system.  The Government won the vote.  MPs would now regulate themselves.  Ministers started a briefing campaign against the Standards Commissioner.  MPs were briefed to say Paterson’s treatment was unfair.  Poor Mr Paterson was the victim all along.  Two plus two equals five. 

Until the following day, when the weight of truth forced a U-turn. 

Here’s a simple moral truth.  The culture of MPs having a second job is wrong.  If you can’t manage on £81,932 a year, then don’t run as an MP.  Despite getting £520 an hour from Randox, Paterson voted to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week.  And voted against giving kids free school meals through the holidays. 

That a corrupt politician got caught isn’t the big story.  In just the past year Robert Jenrick accepted a donation of £12,000 after letting property developer Richard Desmond off a £45 million bill.  Oil firms who donated £419,000 to the Tory Party won oil exploration licenses in British waters – in the middle of a climate emergency.  And Matt Hanckock’s mates got £millions in PPE contracts during the pandemic via a private WhatsApp group. 

The bigger story is that Tory MPs closed ranks to change the definition of wrongdoing.

Blyth’s Ian Levy voted in favour.  As did Durham MPs Dehenna Davison, Richard Holden and Paul Howell.  The Government whips were twisting arms and threatening reprisals.  But custodians of democracy have a duty to put the public good ahead of their political career.  As Orwell wrote, “It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two plus two will make five when the Leader says so.” 

But let’s not be lazy and give into “crimestop”.  Not all MPs are the same.  Labour MPs voted against. Some Tories abstained, including Junior Minister Guy Opperman and Cabinet Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan.  For ministers to defy a three-line whip is significant.    

Mr Johnson wants to change the rules because there’s a skip full of corruption waiting to be investigated. 

The PM used a £25,000 a week holiday villa – and made the owner a Life Peer.  He took a £200,000 donation to revamp his flat with gold wallpaper.  Last week he took a personal jet – which we paid for – from Glasgow to meet with his old pals at London’s Garrick club to save his old mate Owen Paterson.  Not a small jet, mind, but an Airbus A321 that normally carries 196 passengers. 

What’s the media and commentariat response?  “Ooh, he might lose some popularity in the polls.”  If we had better political journalism in this country, they’d be asking, “How do we prevent this from happening again?” 

There is an offence called Misconduct in Public Office.  It’s a centuries old law that’s so ill-defined it’s not much use for prosecuting corrupt politicians.  Last December, the Law Commission recommended replacing it with a specific offence of “Corruption in Public Office.”

It’s about time we cleaned up politics.  The corrupt should stand trial.  However rich and powerful their friends are. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 08 Nov 2021

Rishi’s Budget porkies

Let’s start this week with a quiz.  Multiple choice – which of these is true?

The UK is “well on the way to recovery.”

The UK has “the fastest growth in the G7.”

We are in a “new age of optimism.”

“We can’t afford to borrow any more.”

Eon Productions have invited me to play a cameo role in the next James Bond film. 

They’re all false, apart from that last one.  Which is also false.  But if Rishi Sunak is allowed to tell porkies in the Budget, I’m allowed to make a rhetorical point in my column. 

“Our success will be measured not by the billions we spend, but by the outcomes we achieve, and the difference we make to people’s lives,” he said. Hard to disagree, but Mr. Sunak and I want to make different differences. 

I want to end poverty, create jobs, and tackle the climate emergency.  He wants to… do what exactly?  Strip away the rhetoric, and it’s hard to see what his budget will achieve.  On Thursday I was in a meeting with the other northern Labour Mayors.  “He was auditioning to be Boris’s replacement,” said one, “that budget was aimed at Tory MPs, no one else.” 

In September, our Combined Authority sent the Chancellor our Comprehensive Spending Review proposals.  Specific, evidence-backed schemes.  £639 million of projects attracting £3.5 billion of private investment, creating 14,500 jobs.  Projects on low-carbon living, increased research and development, and strengthening the UK’s resilience to future pandemics.

We’re making rapid progress towards a Clean Energy Economy, with new jobs in net-zero industries. We’re closing the education gap and getting more people into jobs & training. We’re focusing on rapid renewal for our towns, high streets, communities and places. On transport and infrastructure that drives green growth. 

My vision – and NTCA’s vision – for the region is a place where kids want to stay when they graduate.  A place where people want to bring up families.  A place with good jobs, with good prospects and good wages. But it needs investment. 

On that, who do you think the UK Government borrows from?  Government sold £450 billion in bonds through the pandemic.  A bond is a legally-binding IOU.  Government says, “you give me £1000 now, and I’ll give you it back in ten years time.”  They pay interest in the meantime, known as the ‘coupon’.  Interest rates are currently 0.1%.  So for every £1000, Government pays £1 a year. 

But here’s the clever part.  The bonds were sold to the Bank of England, via something called Quantitative Easing.  Which means the Bank of England pays the interest right back to the Treasury.  If you think that’s exactly the same as creating money, you’re right.  So in fact, borrowing to invest puts the UK Govt in debt to no one but itself. 

So Mr. Sunak’s choice to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week and plunge 300,000 children into poverty was not economic, but ideological.  All he’s done is make the future worse – every child who has a difficult start in life weakens our whole society. 

He could have invested £639 million here, in the North of Tyne.  He could have empowered us to create 14,500 jobs.  Each job pays income tax and NICs.  Payroll taxes alone would repay the money in just five years.  Add in the VAT, corporation tax, and low-carbon growth, and Government would see its money at least doubled. 

Why didn’t he?  The answer is ideology.  A fortnight ago, I was in the room and heard the Prime Minister say that Government has limited power to fix the climate crisis – it was up to the free market and consumer choice.  He said elsewhere that the lorry driver crisis is the fault of lorry drivers and haulage firms.  His Government outsourced test and trace to private companies with no experience, in a colossal waste of public money. 

In short, this Government is led by people who don’t believe Government should fix things.  And so it is, we go into COP26 with no credible plan to fix the climate emergency for our kids and grandkids.  Just a cut in taxes to Air Passenger Duty, the most polluting form of transport there is. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 01 Nov 2021

Beyond the pomp & ceremony

Like any typical lad from the North East, I’d never been to the Guildhall before.  It is deep within the City of London in the Financial District.  The whole place oozes money. £millions change hands at the drop of a hat.  And many of the problems I’m dealing with started here, their roots in financial speculation undermining the foundations of our economy.

I found myself here to attend the Global Investment Summit.  This was a gathering of global business leaders and government leaders from across the UK.  That was on Tuesday last week.  So on Monday I got on a train with a mission to bring more jobs to the region, starting with a formal dinner at the Guildhall on the Monday evening. 

On the way down to London I was reading The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson.  A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Dan, and his in-depth knowledge of the region piqued my interest.  I’d highly recommend his book (and I’m not on commission). 

He mentions about the Coal Exchange in London.  It’s demolished now but was a magnificent building on the Banks of the Thames, 15 minutes walk from the Guildhall.  Its place in the City of London and grandeur demonstrated the power and wealth that was shared by the North East.  A grandeur that’s still reflected in some of the buildings here.  During this time the North East was known for its hard-working people, inventiveness, and for enjoying a couple of drinks now and then.  I believe none of that has changed.

Today, even closer to the Guildhall, just around the corner in fact, is a Greggs bakery.  

Having trumpeters in bearskin hats at dinner was a new one on me, along with loyal toasts to the Queen.  There was a gentleman known as the Toast Master who introduced the speakers.  To gain attention the usual “Ladies and Gentlemen” was preceded by a long list of Excellencies, Lords, Aldermen, Chancellor, Secretaries of State, and First Commoner.  Not Mayors though.

But beyond the pomp I managed to have some productive conversations about real stuff with the business leaders there.  Low carbon transport, offshore wind, health technology, future of hydrogen.  I even talked to a rep from Mitsubishi about jiu jitsu. 

After the Guildhall Steve Rotheram, Andy Burnham and I decided to find a real pub for a proper pint.  Steve said it was reported that £24 trillion was represented in that room.  I had £30 in notes in my pocket, not sure if that was counted or not.

Tuesday morning, the Global Investment Summit began at the Science Museum. So I wound my way through a huge police presence, and off to the breakfast networking event.  There was as much muesli and yogurt as you could eat…

At the keynote speech Mr Johnson regaled us with his after dinner speaking wit.  I was hoping for detailed plans for the future of our country, but he focused on jokes about Peppa Pig.  And said the free market would sort out the other problems. 

The contacts and conversations were useful.  I’d set up a string of meetings with people about developing their businesses here, in the North of Tyne.  I have a stack of leads for my team to follow up, and we’re working hard to translate them into real jobs. 

Then it was back on the train, laptop out, until that amazing view of the Tyne bridges as you approach Central Station.

Barely had I got my feet back on North Eastern soil, I put my suit jacket in my backpack and cycled over to Verisure’s Centre of Excellence near Longbenton.  

I spoke with Luis Gill, their founder and global president.  I first spoke to Verisure two years ago, when we persuaded them to locate here.  I told them I wanted to build a green economy based on good jobs.  They told me they wanted to build a loyal workforce by treating their employees well.    Two years on, they already employ 400 people.  Now they’re recruiting another 100. 

And as for good work, they’ve just given their staff an average 12% pay rise.  So if you’re after a job, send them your CV. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25 Oct 2021

Good mental health underpins our individual and collective wellbeing

You’ll have seen it, perched on cliff tops next to the ancient Tynemouth Priory, the Tynemouth coastguard station. Decommissioned twenty years ago, it’s stood empty since.  Now, thanks to the work of local women’s veterans’ organisation, Salute Her,  a new life as a wellbeing centre for women veterans could be on the horizon.

Paula from Salute Her gave me a tour of the building.  We met with staff from English Heritage, the custodians of the site, and Sir Alan Campbell, MP for Tynemouth.

Paula’s vision is for a Health & Wellbeing Centre for women veterans.   Its history both as a place of sanctuary makes it an ideal location.  It’s a safe, women-only space, where veterans will get help with mental health issues and trauma resulting from military service. It will be a first not just for the region, but nationally. It’s early days for the project but I’m keen to help make it become a reality.

Innovation in addressing mental health needs is the hallmark of another mental health project I visited last week. In case you’re wondering why the mental health focus, it was World Mental Health Day last week. I took the opportunity to visit the Recovery College Collective in Newcastle. Better known as Recoco, the college provides peer-led support and education. It supports over 2,000 people with lived experience of mental ill health. I last visited before the pandemic. Since then, they’ve had to deal with a double-whammy of supporting people through lockdown, and of finding new premises.

Covid safety restrictions required creativity and resourcefulness – everything from moving groups and courses online, to simply going for a walk to talk to people. Alisdair, Recoco’s co-director, told me that they’ve also pioneered new ways of working with statutory mental health services. By having services in the same place, it helps people stay connected when moving between services. Take a look at their online prospectus at www.recoverycoco.com. You’ll be impressed with what they have to offer. And on top of this, they managed to find the new premises in Carliol Square in Newcastle. They’ve plans to develop this into a mental health care, treatment and research hub. What an asset to the city centre that will be.

The Combined Authority doesn’t have the remit for public health or treatment services of course. That lies with our local authorities and NHS.  Still, supporting wellbeing and good mental health is behind everything we do.  Creating meaningful jobs and tackling poverty are integral to this.

The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Mental health in an unequal world.” Inequality takes many forms. The relationship between poverty and poor mental health is a close one.  Children in the poorest 20% of households are four times more likely to have a serious mental health condition by the age of 11 compared to those from the wealthiest 20%.  Despite this, the government cut £20 per week from Universal Credit. This £1000 a year goes to working families amongst others.  It has plunged an astonishing 840,000 people, including 300,000 children into poverty.  It risks their physical and mental health, and strains our NHS. After ten years of austerity, mental health services have 8.5% less funding than in 2010, but demand has risen by 20%.  No wonder GPs and hospitals are stretched to breaking point.  

I’m working hard with my cabinet to pull together a range of interventions to tackle poverty. We’ve developed a Child Poverty Prevention Programme for our region. This is putting £900k in projects including poverty intervention measures in schools. Our Good Work Pledge challenges the scourge of precarious employment and in-work poverty.  It also requires employers to look after the mental wellbeing of their staff. Our Poverty Truth Commission, launching soon, will develop further measures to alleviate financial hardship. And, we’re working with the well-respected wellbeing authority, Carnegie UK, to become the first Combined Authority to measure wellbeing as an objective, rather than abstract economic statistics.

Good mental health underpins our individual and collective wellbeing. I’m working to make mental health promotion a factor in everything we do at North of Tyne.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 18 Oct 2021

Like Bond, let’s just get the job done.  

When I was elected Mayor in 2019, I joined the group of Metro Mayors already in existence, and became ‘M9’.  The first meeting was in London’s City Hall, where SPECTRE was filmed, doubling as villain C’s HQ.  I was disappointed Sadiq Khan wasn’t stroking a white cat. 

‘I’m straight out of a Bond movie’ I said to my family, who appeared to be less than convinced. I reminded them that I’m a black-belt in jiu jitsu, and own a tuxedo, but apparently being Bond takes more than that. 

Anyway, we all went to see the new Bond at the Tyneside last week – highly recommend and don’t worry, no spoilers – and it set me thinking about the whole series of films.

James Bond has been a British icon since Ian Fleming published Casino Royale in 1953.  Bond is always portrayed as a heroic loner.  But he depends on a backup team.  Q’s extraordinary gadgets – including the visionary message-carrying digital watch from The Spy Who Loved Me. M provides the  political cover to operate.  Miss Moneypenny’s peerless organisation skills.  And a whole team of people providing intelligence and logistical support, sometimes even entire ships’ crews. 

Some of the Bond plots, as with the messaging watch, have been remarkably prescient. Okay, none of them foresaw food and petrol shortages, but then neither did Mr Johnson’s government.

In Quantum of Solace, there’s no moonbase or “laser” superweapon.  The CIA are involved in regime change and the villains are manipulating utility prices by monopolising the access to water.  Take out the stunts, and it’s a documentary.  Which makes me wonder – is the chaos of an unregulated market economy causing the latest gas price hikes, or is Blofeld behind it? 

Bond villains always have grandiose plans that never work.  Often involving improbable construction projects like a bridge to Northern Ireland or airbase in the middle of a river estuary.  They treat their underlings with contempt, and make long speeches instead of taking action, in denial that the world is falling into chaos around them…

Bond doesn’t faff about, laughing maniacally. He just gets the job done.  As I often say, done is better than perfect. 

What would solve our current problems better than Bond’s actions? A high-wage economy, that’s what. Anyone who wants to take over the world would be better deployed making it a better place.

However we view the problem, the solution is the same.  We need the people in the North East to have a higher real income.  That means generating – and retaining – more wealth in our region.  I’m talking about full employment in secure jobs, paying decent wages.  This requires and supports a better transport system, higher levels of skills and education, healthier lifestyles, and affordable, secure homes. 

It requires an economic model where there’s a job for everyone who wants one, and where wages are high enough to live a life of contentment.  That includes sectors traditionally regarded as low-paid, including social care, hospitality, distribution and retail workers.  We must focus on improving the foundational economy with as much energy as the high-productivity sectors of digital and manufacturing.  This means providing more skills training and professionalisation, so the workforce becomes more valued and better paid, resulting in lower staff turnover and higher productivity.

We’re succeeding, but not quickly enough to close the gap any time soon.  I was elected just two years ago, and already the North of Tyne has attracted global firms that practice what they preach, training and developing workers to have careers, not just jobs.  We’re creating jobs in key sectors of offshore renewables, clean energy technology, zero-carbon automotive, digital, and healthy ageing and life sciences.  We have programmes supporting small- and medium-sized businesses by the hundred, investing in innovation, digital adoption and job creation.  We’re supporting freelancers in the culture and creative sectors. 

This new economic model for the North East must be built on a green economy.  Financial security need not consume more of the Earth’s resources or emit more greenhouse gasses.  Our wealth can be spent on art, leisure, entertainment, PassivHaus homes and transport with ultra-low emissions.  We can build a wellbeing economy.  Like Bond, let’s just get the job done.  

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11 Oct 2021

Beyond the headlines in Brighton

It’s two years since I started writing this column in The Journal and The Chronicle.  In that time we’ve had a general election, a global pandemic, a change in Labour leader, and Britain has left the EU. 

Then, as now, I’d just returned from Labour Conference in Brighton.  And then, as now, the reality is different from the TV clips. 

The Conference Hall that you see on TV is the nexus of the conference.  There’s motions, and rule change debates, and the big speeches from the main stage.  The Party managers are concerned about the headlines, of course, and how the leader’s speech gets reported. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The conference centre holds dozens and dozens of exhibition stands.  Trade Unions, think tanks, charities, businesses and journalists.  It’s fascinating to see the TV and radio stations.  They really do create pop up studios.  It’s hard to walk far without appearing in someone’s shot. 

For every news headline, there’s two dozen fringe events spread across Brighton, a hundred private meetings huddled around tables in hotel bars, and politicians and advisors scurrying around finishing speeches on a just-in-time basis.  I became very familiar with the venue security check and bag search.    

I arrived on Sunday evening.  A few meetings and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in person for two years, before a back-to-back couple of days, with meetings from 8am to late.  Conference is the only time it is acceptable to propose a 10pm meeting!  

On Monday morning I bumped into Andy McDonald at breakfast.  As a North East MP, we’ve got to know each other over the years.  We discussed his New Deal for Working People.  It’s a great piece of work that lays out in detail how we change employment law to benefit Britain’s 31 million working people, and still enable good employers to thrive.  It includes a proposal for everyone to be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.    

Later that day, Andy resigned – unhappy at being told to argue against proposals he was advocating.  Ambitions and headline policies are one thing, but any credible government has to know how to deliver the detail.  Andy will be a loss to the Labour front bench. 

My first meeting was an interview with the Financial Times – how do we level up places like the North East?  My answer – generate more wealth here.  That means investment.  We’re creating thousands of good green jobs at the North of Tyne.  But with more financial tools, we can really start to eradicate unemployment and poverty wages. 

Then off to a fringe at The World Transformed on Community Wealth Building.  On the panel were three other Labour politicians in power, who are also creating jobs, keeping money in their local economies, and tackling economic inequality.  I spoke about “guerrilla economics” – how it is possible (just) to make a local difference even when Government starves our regions of funding.  Most encouraging was a well informed audience of Labour people in local government making a difference. 

Then a series of meetings with Union General Secretaries, and the new Director General of the CBI.  Conference is an efficient opportunity to meet lots of people one after the other.  Zoom has its uses, but it’s not the same as face-to-face meetings. 

More panels – Community Wealth Building with shadow ministers, Tackling Regional Economic Inequalities with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.  And a fascinating panel with Andy Burnham and John McDonnell on a fairer taxation model to replace Council Tax. 

In between were media interviews.  Cross questions on LBC in a makeshift studio discussing the topical issues including Andy’s resignation (sad), party unity (essential) and the fuel crisis (totally avoidable).  My favourite question was from Tyne Tees TV’s Tom Sheldrick: should Labour conference be held in Newcastle.  An enthusiastic “Yes”. 

Lastly I met up with fellow Metro Mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham for a couple of hours (in the bar) and later Sadiq Khan joined us.  Then some late night and early morning Combined Authority business from my hotel room on the overburdened hotel Wi-Fi.

All before heading off on Tuesday evening to Manchester, for the Transport for the North meeting on Wednesday morning. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 04 Oct 2021

The backbone of our economy

Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. Plumbers, hairdressers and beauticians, charity workers, arts professionals and creatives. In the North East they represent around half a million jobs.  In fact, 95% of businesses in our region are micro-businesses, employing ten people or fewer.  And, sadly, small firms often struggle to get the financial backing they need. 

The pandemic has been tough on them.  Excluded UK represents a whopping 3 million limited companies, sole traders and freelancers left out in the cold by Government and the Treasury.  Locally, the North of Tyne put £5 million into giving a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable, but we were only able to scratch the surface.  Soon, firms will face the combined effects of their VAT deferments falling due, furlough coming to and, Bounce Back Loan payments kicking in, and a host of other temporary support measures all ending within months.  Add in recent National Insurance hikes, and many small firms fear for next year. 

Small businesses often trade with each other.  If a customer goes bust, and doesn’t pay their invoices, there’s a risk of a domino effect.  I’ve suggested to the CBI and others that Government develop a scheme to prevent this.  They’d need to crunch the numbers, but the concept is simple.  If you’ve fulfilled a contract, but your customer goes bust for Covid-related reasons, Government should step in and pay a substantial part of the invoice. 

It’s not dissimilar in concept to insolvency support that workers get.  If your employer goes bust, you can apply to the Government for your outstanding pay and unpaid redundancy money.  So many people are now self-employed one way or another, they need this protection.  I hope this becomes Government policy.   

Even before Covid, though, small businesses faced an uphill playing field against big business.  Access to finance is difficult.  For a bank loan, you typically have to risk your family home as collateral – if you have one.  Even amongst people aged 35-44, only 50% of people are homeowners.  Working class people of any age with good business ideas find it hard to raise the cash to start a business.    

Too often when funding is available, it extracts wealth from our local economy. Loans have to be paid back of course, with interest.  If it’s from hedge funds, or commercial banks, this sucks out wealth to pay shareholders’ dividends and profits.  This rarely feeds back into the local economy.  More likely it gets funnelled through tax havens. 

Last week at the North of Tyne cabinet, we agreed a package of access to finance measures to address this.  Backed by £15 million over five years from our Investment Fund, it will boost small business growth.  It will give people of ordinary means a chance to become their own boss.  And it will recycle local capital, keeping wealth in our region.  

It’s got the heft required to make a real difference. There’s £10 million in the package for equity investment – a challenge the North East faces.  Although we account for 2.3% of the UK economy, only 1.4% of the total UK private equity and venture capital is invested here.  By having a fund to directly invest in small, local firms, start-ups and scale-ups, we can accelerate the economic recovery.  As the fund grows, the money will be recycled, supporting more local firms, and creating more jobs here. 

For cooperatives, and businesses trading with a social purpose, it’s even harder.  Investors expect a vote in your business, and the legal structure of worker-owned or community-owned businesses often prevents that.  So we’ve made £4 million available to directly invest in these businesses, as a source of patient capital to help them grow. 

We’ll underpin these funds with strong ethical values.  I was presenting an award at the North East Business awards on Thursday.  It’s heartening to see how many local firms really want to look after their employees.  How many take real steps to give something back to their communities.  And how many take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

This is a win-win approach.  The investment will pay for itself and do much social good along the way.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 27 Sept 2021

Valuing the arts

Setting aside the Damien Hirsts of this world, most artists don’t take up their craft with the expectation of a private jet and a villa in Tuscany. They do it to satisfy an artistic drive – it’s part of who they are.

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up’. That’s Pablo Picasso. The artists at the Lime Street Studios in the Ouseburn Valley would agree with him.

They agree, too, that the arts and the economy are inextricably linked.

The Government seems to think the arts has little importance.  Why else would they be drastically cutting arts education in schools, colleges and universities?  It’s a false economy.  The arts not only enrich our lives, it employs over 137,000 people.   

I visited the artists at the Lime Street Studios recently.  It’s sandwiched between The Cluny and Seven Stories on the Ouseburn Valley.  I asked them what they needed to keep their artistic businesses vibrant.  

They all have a ‘portfolio’ of ways to make a living.  Selling artworks, taking commissions.  A bit of teaching.  Community art projects, music gigs and music therapy sessions.  Putting on exhibitions.  And art therapy work in hospitals, particularly for those with mental health problems.

Covid, of course, completely pulled the rug out from under all of this.  The artists have shown their resilience, and adapted.  But many of the areas and people that needed the arts most have been hardest hit. 

We talked about the value of art in education.  How it produces more rounded individuals who have insights into other aspects of life that you don’t always get if you only study science or maths. That’s what the arts give you – it’s not only about becoming an artist or a musician – it’s about having a wider personal scope.

The future is going to be all about adaptability.  My kids are good at science and maths – but unlike me, they’re also good at music and fine art.  It will serve them well in a changing world. 

I asked what their economic barriers were. They told me there was a need for more buildings like the Studios.  The need for accessibility and affordable rents.  How artists need the confidence that they can build up their businesses and community networks without the worry of being moved on.  And how these spaces are needed across the region, not just in Newcastle.

They need broadband in the whole building, so they can continue the online work they’ve been able to offer during lockdown.  Which brings us back to diversity again. People with disabilities and mental health issues have had unprecedented access to the arts online.  The Studio artists were very keen to make sure that wasn’t withdrawn.

They stressed the importance of having a space like the Lime Street Studios, but they need investment.  Although they each run their own businesses, the Studio premises is run as a cooperative.  All of the artists in the old bonded warehouse are part of its collective management, and make their own decisions about how to manage the space.  But co-operatives find it difficult to attract investment.

That’s where the Combined Authority comes in.

Our Cultural and Creative Investment programme provides steppingstones to support organisations to emerge from COVID on a more resilient, and sustainable, footing.  Every business’s finance needs are different.  That why our £2.625 million fund has numerous finance options.  Small grants up to £5,000 each.  Loans of around £50,000k to £150,000 at interest rates from 0% to 10%.  And equity investment of up to £75,000.

There’s a separate offer for freelancers to help develop commercial skills such as protecting their intellectual property or developing their brand.   We’re working in partnership with Creative England on the fund – have a look at what we’re offering at www.creativeengland.co.uk/northoftyne

The Studio artists told me how important it was to be able to access funding like this, without the strings or reams of paperwork.  

Economic development has to be low-carbon and inclusive, so everyone benefits from it.  It also has to be enriching.  We need a culture of valuing the arts for their own sake.

And the Combined Authority’s here to help with that.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20 Sept 2021

This Is Our Run

You’re prepping for the race.  Questions racing through your mind.  Am I wearing the right clothes? Have I done enough groundwork?  Am I in the right frame of mind?  Months of preparation comes down to this moment.  I know the supporters will keep me going. 

You’re on the starting line…

This could be the start of the Great North Run.  It’s also a good description of the Mayoral election in 2019.  In between we’ve had Covid.  It scuppered the GNR in 2019.  This year, Covid uncertainty made sponsors nervous.  Spacing runners into waves added complexity and cost. 

On 28th June 1981, the first Great North Run took place. It was a trailblazer. I was 11.  Life in the North East was a bit different then. Come to think of it, life in the whole country was a bit different then. We even won the Eurovision Song Contest.  With 40 years of history, we could not risk it failing. 

I first spoke to Brendan Foster about it back in February.  The GNR is the biggest half-marathon in the world.  Over 50,000 runners.  The North of Tyne Combined Authority put £400,000 funding to keep the GNR secure. 

It’s worth £33 million in economic benefit to the region.  It puts us on the map.  It fills 25,000 hotel bedrooms.  £24 million raised for charity. 

It’s a massive regional success story broadcast live in 137 countries around the world.  We sponsored the film, Great North: A Run, A River, A Region which opened at the Tyneside last week.  It’s on local cinemas – and well worth a watch. 

There’s more to the GNR than numbers, though.  Brendan persuaded me to run this year.  My training was going well, until I got a calf strain a fortnight ago.  My physio has been brilliant – shout out to Jack Gilmour.  “You’re obviously going to run,” he said, “so let’s work out how we can get you round.  But forget any hope of a personal best.” 

Dashing around at the start.  I started the elite women’s race.  My friend, Lord Mayor Habib Rahman, started the wheelchair race.  Best of all was the main race was started by NHS workers: I chatted to Community Nurse Dorothy and Cardiologist Micky, who like me were also running. 

I’ve done long runs before, marathons and half-marathons.  But nothing is like the Great North Run.  It’s the sheer diversity.  The awesome ability of the wheelchair athletes.  The bravery of the blind and visually impaired athletes. 

Before I even got to the Tyne Bridge, my calf-tightened.  We knew it might, and had a plan.  I slowed right down to a jog.  It was a blessing in disguise – I got to pay attention to everyone else. 

The sheer selflessness of thousands of people – doing something so physically gruelling – without any interest in personal reward.  Cancer Research.  Breast Cancer, Pancreatic Cancer, Blood Cancer.  St Oswalds Hospice.  McMillan Nurses. Shelter.  Strokes.  NSPCC.  Mental Health.  Help For Heroes.  British Legion.  Every one of them about healing and helping.  I was running for veterans’ charity Forward Assist.  Apologies to all those I haven’t got space to mention.

Countless people running in memory of loved ones.  Personal stories about healing the grief. 

At mile 9 I had to pop into the first aid tent for some Vaseline.  I hadn’t had a chance to break in my new top, and jogger’s nipple struck – blood soaking through the white fabric like a pair of brake lights. 

I watched the strength and compassion of all those tens of thousands of people.  The runners.  The volunteers.  The supporters.  All the kids I high-fived on the way round.   I’m proud to come from the North East.  That pride – that support – that sheer generosity of spirit – got me round and across the finish line.   

Along the Felling bypass I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  A fellow runner ran past me, pressed a £20 not into my hand, and said, “Good man – good cause.” 

We’ve had a hell of an eighteen months.  We’ve come through Covid.  So many have experienced tragedy.  When we come together in unity, we are strong. 

This is our Region.  This is our Run.  Let the healing begin. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 13 Sept 2021

Showing off our region

We’re at least 280 miles from London.  It’s a long way however you travel.  3 hours by train, 6 hours by car and 27 hours by bike.  But we’re even further in terms of media focus.  The Westminster Bubble is obsessed with political manoeuvrings in Westminster.  Try and get them to cover the creation of thousands of jobs in the North of Tyne, and they’re not interested. 

I guess that cuts both ways.  The impression of London from here can be skewed.  Many see it as a place of opportunity – career advancement, global HQs, the hub of media, arts and culture.  The reality also includes extortionate rents and long commutes. 

On Thursday I had a chance to correct the imbalance.  I showed Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist’s political editor around the North of Tyne.  He was keen to get out of the Westminster bubble. 

I love showing off our region.  Our beautiful coastline, fascinating history, and vibrant culture.  But most of all I love the stories of the people.  We are resilient, entrepreneurial, and passionate.  Too many lack opportunity, though.  We need jobs.  My role as Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority is to fix that.  Removing the barriers that stop people flourishing. 

I took him to visit the Cedarwood Trust in the Meadow Well.  Run by Wayne Dobson and Alison Cunningham, it’s a charity and community centre.  There’s a food club – not a food bank – that sells low cost food.  And with funding from the North of Tyne, they help adult learners get the skills to earn a decent living.  Retraining people on their terms, building confidence and self-esteem.  Our visitor from London was struck by way people’s dignity was a priority. 

Next, we visited Phil Souter & colleagues at Proctor & Gamble’s Advanced Circular Economy Project in Benton.  It’s a partnership with the North of Tyne, P&G, universities and local firms, developing cleaning products that use less heat and water.  Last year Rhona, the R&D Vice President pitched it to me.  She was really up-front, and told me her colleagues had said, “Don’t waste your time.  Nothing happens for years if you talk to government.”  Well, within months the project was up and running, creating high-paying high-tech jobs.  That’s the strength of devolving power out of London, to regional Mayors. 

We visited BritishVolt.  Company Chairman, Peter Rolton, and his colleague Charlotte, drove us round the site.  It is monumental in every way.  Size.  Jobs.  Scale of ambition.  And social and environmental responsibility.  We’re working with BritishVolt to provide the training opportunities to make sure those 3000 jobs go to local people. 

Next to Transmission Dynamics in Cramlington.  They use both human and artificial intelligence to solve complex engineering problems.  Like smart bolts which fit on offshore wind turbines.  It used to be that an engineer would have to sail out to the turbines to check all the bolts were within tolerances.  With the smart bolts this can be monitored from land.  It’s cheaper and saves time and fuel.  Adrian asked development director Jenny Hudson what difference it made having a Mayor.  “There’s someone to focus investment on our region’s strength – offshore renewables.  It means businesses like ours can grow”.  We spoke about the Catapult, our offshore wind projects, and how clean energy will replace our coal-dependent past. 

Our last visit was to Verisure, a global security firm now based near Longbenton.  Kevin Croft was one of the directors I met when we persuaded them to set up here.  “Why did you come here rather than London?” Adrian asked him.  “The people are friendlier.  It’s really true.  And loyal – we want long term development of our staff.  Plus I could by a four bedroom house with a garden for two-thirds the price of my 2 bedroom flat in London.” 

Adrian had never looked round our region in depth before.  He knew it wasn’t all whippets and flat caps, but he wasn’t expecting to see such innovation and potential. 

I explained my vision.  A well-paid job for everyone who wants one, with us as the powerhouse of the new, green economy.  I asked him if he thought I would achieve my vision.  “Yes,” he said.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 06 Sept 2021

Nurturing our communities with goodwill & solidarity

I love getting out and about and meeting people.  Last Monday I met trade minister Lord Grimstone for dinner.  We discussed getting more Government support to bring investment here.  On Wednesday I met the Vice President and the European Ops director of a US firm over coffee.  The meeting was a success, and fingers crossed, they’ll be creating 150 new jobs in the North of Tyne.  Efficient though Zoom may be, there’s no substitute for an in-person meeting. 

Shifting from international to local, I spent part of Monday visiting community enterprises in Newcastle’s West End.  The invitation came from Mayor Habib Rahman.  When I was councillor for Monument Ward in the City Centre, our wards were adjacent, and we worked together on several issues.  Habib is Newcastle’s first ever civic leader from the BAME community.  This is a big deal not only locally but also back in Bangladesh where Habib’s parents hail from.

We both have the title Mayor, but the roles are different.  As Mayor of a combined authority I might be the one with the budget and can pull a few more levers, but Mayor Rahman has got the swankier office by far. Not to mention the bling.

Our first stop was Elswick Pool.  I used to swim there decades ago.  You’ll remember that in 2010 the coalition Government had a political decision to make.  They chose to cut public services, triple tuition fees, and let keyworkers’ wages fall.  In return, they pumped hundreds of billions of pounds into increasing financial assets like the FTSE index and commercial property.  And David Cameron said we were all in it together. 

Locally, Elswick Pool got the chop.  Kids missed out on swimming lessons.  Adults missed out on fitness.  The community lost a vital hub.  And the workers lost their jobs. 

Local people got organised.  They campaigned, and set up a charity.  They learned from Jesmond Pool.  Diane, a leading campaigner is now on the management board of a thriving social enterprise, owned by its community.  It’s a labour of love, she told me.  It employs nine members of staff and supports twenty six part time roles such as swimming coaches.  Twenty schools now have swimming lessons there.  There are dedicated sessions for women to swim, and hydrotherapy for people with disabilities.  The pool’s manager, Phil, described how it’s now a buzzing community hub, helping people get fitter and lose weight. 

Next stop was the Millin Charity, in the Beacon Centre – the old fire station on the West Road.  Run by Shewley and Kirsty, it helps women establish businesses.  (And Sarah, who’s on maternity leave).  For twenty years now they’ve built up trust and contacts throughout their community.  Women from all backgrounds can just drop in or pick up the phone.  They run sessions on business planning, financial advice, and the legal hurdles of being in business.  We spoke about how it can scaled up.  How it was that they’d been able to change the way these women see themselves, and find confidence to transform their lives. 

And it works.  Every year, they work with around 200 women.  On average this results in 30 women setting up a business or becoming self-employed.  Everything from cake or dress making, to business support services.  A further 20 find employment.  45 more go on to further training and education. 

The stories of Elswick Pool and the Millin Charity share something with the US investors I met.  They are about entrepreneurship.  With no reliable funding, with no rich backers, both social enterprises are creating jobs out of nothing more than goodwill and solidarity.  And making people’s lives better in the process. 

The democratic socialism that I believe in is massively entrepreneurial. It’s also about levelling the playing field.  The difference is it’s about making sure that central Government doesn’t tilt the table in favour the corporations with lobbyists on big bucks.  Or hand out contracts to people you went to Eton with. 

When we nurture the people in our communities, they step up and succeed.  That’s why we’re bringing forward a plan to back social enterprises, here in the North of Tyne. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 30 August 2021

Storytelling defines a culture

I get a buzz from seeing talented people do their thing.  Whether it’s sport, comedy or plays.  I’m endlessly impressed watching the skills that have been honed over thousands of hours.  And the joy and passion at performers’ self-expression.  I love seeing people learning their trade, too.  Supporting up and coming talent. 

Edinburgh Fringe has all that in spades.  It’s the tapas of live entertainment.  Lots of little portions which add up make a satisfying meal.  We also ate actual tapas!  I’ve spent the last few days there with my family, and am writing my column on the train back. 

Nelson, my younger son, is learning the guitar.  His choice was “When Judas Met John.”  Two brothers performing and comparing the songs of Bob Dylan and John Lennon.  The lad’s got good taste – I raised him well!  The similarity between Norwegian Wood and 4th Time Around is obvious.

Now fifteen, my older son Leon liked Stand Up Philosophy.  Philosophy teacher turned comedian Alex Farrow hosts stand-ups, and the audience quiz them on their material.  Sitting in the front row, I got asked my occupation.  I always answer questions honestly, “I’m a politician.”  Groans and jeers from the audience.  “What kind of politician?”  “A socialist politician.”  That got a more positive response.  “What’s your name?”  Someone in the Edinburgh audience had heard of me, and I got a whoop. 

This led to banter between the comedians on the nature of democracy, online radicalisation, and a heckle from someone.  “Democracy will never work in the West.  95% of the wealth is owned by 5% of the people.” 

“If only,” said Alex, “there was a political philosophy that tackles wealth inequality,” gesturing to me, and taking the session full circle.  You can’t beat live entertainment.  

The act that will stick with me is Paddy The Cope.  A first-person storytelling of working class hero Patrick Gallagher, founder of the co-op in Donegal.  Accompanied by a fiddler, it took us on the journey of shale mining, love lost and found, oppression by the usury merchants, and the way a community fought back to gain some measure of economic democracy. 

Storytelling defines a culture.  I’ve heard it said that Scots and Welsh devolution is more advanced because of a stronger cultural identity.  Perhaps it’s time we invested in telling our stories of the North East, old and new. 

The Netflix model is to get the whole world seeing the same shows.  But the local variety is what gives entertainment its richness and allows youngsters to imagine what they are capable of.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s some good stuff on Netflix.  But the money we pay Netflix or Sky leaves our region. 

The Fringe shows the power of having a cultural centre to a city’s calendar.  It’s a staging post for launching other activity.  It attracts talented performers.  It makes this a better place to live.  It’s about the most cost-effective advert a city or region can have.    

We don’t want to cut and paste.  What works for Edinburgh might not work for us.  We have a solid base to build on.  Just the week before, we watched the Handlebards perform Macbeth in the grounds of Hexham Abbey.  In the rain.  The Stand Comedy Club is hosting live gigs again.  And I hope to support the Newcastle Improv Festival in coming years. 

This is the focus of our Culture, Creativity and Tourism work.  It’s not just about staging one-off events.  It’s about investing in the content creators and supply chain companies.  Performers and writers, yes.  And everything from make-up artists to lighting riggers.  Jobs people really want to do.  No alienation of labour here.  Providing a support network for creatives to grow sustainably and still be around in 10 years’ time. 

The gig-economy gets its name from the culture and creative industry.  The risk puts many people off following their passion.  Especially kids from working-class backgrounds, who can’t rely on financial support from parents.  Predictable work is the bedrock of flourishing creative and cultural industries.  Any industry in fact!

Hopefully in the not too distant future when asked where best to go for live entertainment, people will say “right here in the North East”.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23 August 2021

A Solid Investment in Good Work

Much of the work trade unions do is hidden and unsung.  Such as providing workplace learning opportunities through the Union Learn programme. The view of trade unions as “the enemy within” and wreckers of the economy is obsolete.  It’s a far cry from the reality.  When employers work with trade unions, whether in the public or private sector, it’s a constructive partnership. 

Little known to the general public, since 1998 the trade unions have built a network of 40,000 volunteer Union Learning Reps (ULRs).  It’s a national scheme, with public funding.  Workplace reps talk workers through opportunities for training and adult education courses.  Too often, people don’t realise they have unfulfilled potential.  Or just aren’t aware of the possibilities on offer.  Sometimes they think their boss won’t support them to skill-up. 

The Union Learning Reps help overcome all these problems.  Because they’re in the workplace, known and trusted by co-workers, the ULRs can help some of those hardest to reach.  People in “left behind” places and unglamorous jobs have transformed their working lives.  Over the past 23 years the ULRs guided over 200,000 workers to gain qualifications in English, maths and IT skills.  Often their first ever qualification.  It put them on the path to further learning and on a route to a better paid career. 

ULRs are volunteers.  That network of 40,000 reps helping their co-workers depends on the back-up of full-time support workers.  In March this year, Government axed the funding.  Union Learn was to end.  The volunteers abandoned, the scheme binned.  It was a crass decision, even by the standards we’ve seen.  And short-sighted.  Recovery from Covid requires a skilled workforce.

But it’s not my style to idly fulminate at the Government.  Rather than shout from the sidelines, I used my remit as Mayor to make Union Learn even better and transform it for the post-Covid era.

In the North of Tyne, 18% of our residents hold low or no qualifications.  Trapped in low paid roles and denied opportunities for progression.  It’s no accident, then, that 23% of our working population earn less than the Real Living Wage. 

Union Learn isn’t just about the workers. Employers benefit.  Better trained staff are more and productive.  The economy benefits.  Greater tax receipts and national insurance contributions.  A higher skilled workforce supports more productive businesses.  Research from the University of Exeter showed that £1 invested in Union Learn creates £12.87 economic benefit.  A win-win all round. 

So although most of the country will be losing Union Learn, last week I launched our initial two-year replacement.   We’ve partnered with the Northern TUC and our local authority colleagues. Backed by £430,000 from our Investment Fund, the TUC-administered project will employ a regional Union Learn coordinator and three full-time Union Learn reps.  This is stronger than before.  They’ll work with employers in our key sectors to champion opportunities for workplace learning.  They’ll pilot new ways to help more workers skill-up, in a wider range of workplaces. It will transform more lives.

I value the role our trade unions play in creating a fairer and greener economy.  I’ve worked with them since becoming Mayor. I have trade union representation on our advisory boards and regular dialogue through our forum with regional union secretaries. We’re working with the teaching unions to set up a cooperative supply agency to combat zero-hours working. And for accreditation to the advanced level of our Good Work Pledge, employers need to have a trade union recognition agreement in place.  Unionised workplaces are more productive, safer, and have lower staff turnover. 

Our Union Learn Project exemplifies what we can achieve through collaboration.  It’s a solid investment in good work and building a fairer economy.  Best of all, it’ll make a concrete difference to low-paid workers’ lives.  Building confidence and putting money in their pockets.

It’s also an example of how agile the North of Tyne Combined Authority is.  Rather than distant targets or “aspirations”, we’ve fixed a problem within a few months.  That’s why I went into politics.  We’ve created a tangible outcome to improve people’s lives in the here and now.  It’s what I’m here to do, just like our ethical businesses, and just like our trade unions. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16 August 2021

The Sky’s the limit

Allan Wells. Anthony Joshua. Linford Christie. Chris Boardman. Nicola Adams. Pythagoras. Eliud Kipchoge. Haile Gebrselassie. Nadia Comaneci.

All Olympic champions. 

No, that’s not a mistake, although it’s true that you’re more likely to associate Pythagoras with triangles, rather than the Olympics.

Pythagoras didn’t win an Olympic crown for doing difficult sums. He won for boxing.  And, at the time – 588 BCE – there were no weight classes, only a boys’ category and a men’s. So you had no idea how enormous, or strong, your opponent might be.

It was a huge honour to be selected to represent your city-state or small kingdom. There were no cash prizes, and no medals. If you won, you were awarded a crown made of leaves – probably bay or basil. There was nothing for the athletes who came second or third. You might have had a statue erected, and be given money by your hometown when you returned triumphant. But at Olympia, you competed for the glory of being an Olympian. If you were a free man, that is. Women weren’t allowed to compete.  Or even to watch – athletes competed barefoot and naked. 

Thank heaven that’s changed. It was great to watch the mixed triathlon at the Tokyo Games – and even better to watch Team GB get the gold.  The relay changeover part, where they run and dive into the water, looked so much fun – I’d love to have a go at that.  But I’ll leave the high-speed dismount and run with the bike to the Olympians.  And if you haven’t seen Charlotte Worthington’s BMX freestyle run, do yourself a favour and watch it on YouTube:

For the vast majority of us, we experience sport by watching it.  Often glass, or can, in hand, and with snacks on the side. We don’t take part. Except in cheering.

And yet, immediately after Wimbledon, there are more kids on the tennis courts. After athletics competitions, there are more people running.

We need to use the power of the Olympics, and other sporting events, not just to get people interested in watching, but to get them taking part.

You can pretty much guarantee that Sky Brown, the 13 year old skateboarding Olympian, will inspire a new generation of young skateboarders. But how easy will they find it to get to a usable skatepark? Or one that they can afford?

Sky Brown competing in the Tokyo Olympics

We need grassroots access to all sports.  So people aren’t put off either by price, distance – including decent public transport and secure bike parking – and the funding of equipment and grassroots clubs.  Too much open space is being built on.  Too many school fields sold to fund education.  Too many sport centres and swimming pools closed by austerity. 

I want to do something about that.

Working with one of those Olympic greats, Sir Brendan Foster, there are already plans afoot for a Great North Festival of Sport.  The aim is to increase daily exercise levels for ordinary people and getting them to participate in sports of all kinds. This isn’t for elite athletes. This is for you and me.  

The Combined Authority is also working on a year-round events programme of high-quality cultural and sporting events capable of achieving regional, national, and international profiles.

I taught jiu jitsu for decades – I’m a black belt myself.  One of the most rewarding aspects was watching people start to see themselves differently, and realise the inner strength that they never knew they had.  That’s what sport can do for us.

Back to Sir Brendan.  I’ve agreed (for which read ‘was talked into it by Brendan’) to put my money where my running shoes are and run the Great North Run on Sunday 12th September. I’m fundraising for a fantastic charity, Forward Assist, www.forward-assist.com.  Based in the North East, they help veterans across the country transition from military service into civilian life.  Everything from accessing health services to setting up businesses. 

British swimmer Adam Peaty said at the Olympics recently: ‘It’s a fun event and that’s what sport needs. It needs to be fun.’ I imagine after these Games there’ll be a lot of young people thinking that the Sky’s the limit.  How right they are!

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 09 August 2021

It’s about jobs, stupid

What does “levelling-up” mean to you?  Getting more investment into the North of England?  Closing the life-expectancy gap, perhaps?  Reversing the historic under-funding of the North’s transport infrastructure? 

I’d hoped the Prime Minister’s much-trailed speech on levelling-up would define it.  His 32-minute speech, his “Vision to Level up the United Kingdom”, covered everything from football pitches to bus stops, via a detour into chewing gum on pavements.  At one point he said if anyone can think of a better idea, send me an email.  I imagined his speech writers face-palming in the wings. 

The commentariat were scathing.  An “everything and nothing policy” according to the chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee. 

Back in October 2020 I gave evidence to that Parliamentary committee. I talked about the need for Government clarity on levelling-up.  How it would be put in to practice in regions such as ours. I spoke of the need to give the North control over our own wealth creation.  The powers to turbocharge our ability to create good jobs. Nearly a year down the line and the Government’s levelling-up plans remain as opaque as ever.

Levelling-up is a catch-all phrase designed for electioneering.  Mr Johnson keeps it deliberately vague – that way he can never fail to achieve it.  Come election time, he’ll claim it a success, regardless of the fact that all of the money earmarked for Northern Powerhouse Rail – to connect Northern cities – is being squandered on HS2.  It’s notable the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), due out last year, then January, then Easter, then in July, has been pushed back again.  It seems the IRP is Samuel Beckett’s much anticipated sequel to Waiting for Godot. 

Progressive patriotism is another vapid slogan.  It’s all about branding, I’m told.  We have to “position ourselves”.  You need to raise your profile.  I hear it all the time in political circles.  Well, if I’d wanted to repeat catch-phrases, I’d have become a game show host.  I became Mayor to fix things. 

And I love my job as Mayor.  Last week I signed off two more investments to create highly paid jobs in the software industry.  I’ll not steal the thunder of the companies’ own announcements and name them, but they’re 100 and 94 jobs respectively. 

I may have started the article criticising the PM’s speech, but so did many in his own party.  But once you’re in government, as I am, that means building partnerships to get things delivered.  The electorate expect us to work together to fix things. 

At Tuesday’s North of Tyne Cabinet for example, we agreed an allocation of £7 million to develop 5G and future connectivity programme. This positions us at the forefront of new technology investments.  Developing test facilities and business cases to secure even more high-tech jobs and facilitate lower-carbon living. 

At the same cabinet meeting we approved our Digital Development Cluster, to create 182 jobs, and the Talent Engine with Dynamo creating another 150.  We agreed funding of £1 million to support “Town and High Street” recovery innovation projects across our three local authorities.  

And we’re working with New Writing North to bring publishing houses to the disused buildings in Clayton Street in Newcastle.   These investments will bring new jobs in addition to the 4,193 jobs already in place or in the pipeline.

Job creation is an art – there’s lots of ingredients go into the recipe.  I’ve been working with BritishVolt since last year, along with our partners in Northumberland who’ve sorted the land deal.  Last Tuesday, they broke ground on the new electric-vehicle battery gigafactory.  That’s another 3000 jobs on top of the 4,193 already in the pipeline.  There’s another 5000 in the BritishVolt supply chain.  We’ll be working to develop the skills programme to bring those jobs here – which we can do, because the skills budget has been devolved to the North of Tyne.  Along with transport and digital infrastructure, investment in training and eduction is a key enabler of job creation.

So what does levelling-up mean to me?  If I can paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s about jobs, stupid.”  Because that’s what levelling-up is all about: creating well paid, secure jobs, so everyone has a future. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 02 August 2021

Southgate’s teamwork shows the way

It’s difficult to type with your fingers crossed. But by the time you read this, we’ll know whether it worked, and football really has come home. I’m not claiming that it’ll all be down to my crossed fingers, mind.  Or even the now anthemic Sweet Caroline – my wife’s name. 

The key word for the England team is ‘team’.  Including the ever-impressive Gareth Southgate as its leader. To win – to get anywhere in a match or a tournament – they have to work as a team. One player thinking he’s the only man on the pitch is a recipe for disaster.

Teamwork duty has been a strong theme this past week, and not just in football.  Last Tuesday, Andy Burnham and I gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, looking at English devolution and whether it’s working.  There’s a video link on my website, Facebook & Twitter if you’re interested. 

The British state lacks teamwork.  Projects that have to be delivered locally are still being designed centrally.  Diktats come from the centre, without flexibility of delivery.  Worse still, they are outsourced to firms that leave others to pick up the pieces when it goes wrong. 

Speaking to the Committee, it would have been easy to blame a Conservative government, or the attitude of Whitehall civil servants for the failures of the centralised test and trace, Kickstart, or the now-scrapped Green Homes Grant.  And yes, I’m no fan of this government or the London centric thinking of our national institutions.  But the problems are also structural. 

Every time I speak to a civil servant – from Treasury, Department of Transport, wherever – I find them professional, helpful, on top of their brief, capable of imagining new ways of doing things.  Yet handcuffed by a system that prevents them from doing anything innovative.  Their reporting lines are tortuous.  Sign-off is labyrinthine.  Their departments talk more to themselves than to outsiders. 

In the North of Tyne, we’ve smashed our job creation target, delivered devolved adult education, and implemented our brownfield housing programme.  Despite Covid, we’re ahead of target and brought them in under budget.  Why?  Because we know our region.  We listen to people on the ground.  We build relationships.  In other words, teamwork. 

We understand that everything is linked.  Transport affects housing and planning. It affects climate change – we want fewer cars, not more. It affects skills – you can’t go to college if there’s no bus to get you there.  It affects our economy. It affects our health – faster and cheaper public transport would get more people walking a little every day. 

I’ve been working with Ministers to get transport powers devolved.  We have an offer of half a billion quid on the table – the Intra City Transport Fund.  We’d have to come together as a region, North and South of the Tyne, into one Mayoral Combined Authority.  Not least because the Metro can’t be half-in and half-out of a devolved transport area. 

Our seven local authorities will have to make their own decisions about whether they want this money and these powers.  We already know we can work well together – we’ve been working on the response to Covid and on our economic recovery plans throughout the pandemic.

This time last year, I was asked by central Government to develop a plan. I brought in the south of the region, the Local Economic Partnership, the trade unions, business organisations and the Universities.  In September, we submitted a joint plan to the Comprehensive Spending Review.  I believe we should unite as a region, work together as a team, and land that plan, which will create 55,000 secure, full-time jobs.  And land that £half-billion devolved transport funding.

Ask any Mayor if they’d like more money, and of course we’d say yes. But what I really want is not more fish, but a fishing rod.  The power to generate more wealth here, for all of us.  So there’s a well paid job and lifelong training available for everyone. 

I’m on leave with my family for the next fortnight.  I’ve asked two groups I work closely with to be guest columnists.  Next week you’ll be hearing from Tyne and Wear Citizens, and the week after, from veterans’ charity Forward Assist. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12 July 2021

Our people are the North’s true powerhouse

There’s a lack of trust between the people and power.

For decades, this has been reflected in Whitehall’s top-down approach to the North East and the other English regions.  Decisions on infrastructure to education to health are made by people without frontline experience, who don’t live here.  The result?  A huge imbalance of power, wealth and health across England.  GDP per capita in the North East is just 73% of the UK average, down from 93% in 1981.  Centralised decision making means less money in your pocket. 

A national one-size-fits-all policy affects our public services, our transport, our job prospects and even our life spans. It translates into us being top of every league table you don’t want to lead.  Lowest business density. Low productivity.  Child poverty up from a shocking 26% in 2014 to a harrowing 37% in 2020.  The 51 central government initiatives to restore regional growth since 1981 have been diktats from the top and haven’t worked.

We’ll only transform the fortunes of the North East by recognising our people are the North’s true powerhouse and our diversity is our strength. Having an elected mayor with devolved powers gives us the tools to do this.  Claiming it’s another tier of government is a lazy argument.  Evidence proves we’re fast, efficient and effective, creating jobs over target and under budget.  Taking the reins from Whitehall is the way to build a strong, vibrant and sustainable North East.  And it allows a new approach to democracy. One where people are trusted, their voices heard, where they shape public policy making in a meaningful way.

Collaboration underpins my whole approach. I’m working in partnership with everyone who has a stake in the North East.  Our three constituent local authorities.  The voluntary and community sector.  Businesses large and small.  And our trade unions.

Collaboration requires meaningful consultation with our citizens, too.  We’ve already delivered our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change.  And I’m putting this in to practice with forums such as the Mayor’s Question Time events.

My next one – the fourth so far – is this Wednesday, 7th July, at 6:30pm.  I’ll be talking about the good green jobs I’m creating in North of Tyne and how they are the bedrock for tackling poverty and protecting the planet.  Great if you can join me – and I promise it will end long before the England vs. Denmark semi-final kick-off at 8pm. 

Co-design doesn’t stop with getting government to listen to us.  It also means we listen to our people, including the North East voices that are often not heard.  Young people, people with disabilities and those experiencing poverty.  

I’ve led a culture inside the Combined Authority which believes things must be done with people, not to people.  It requires trust.  It requires a willingness to tune into what people are saying.  It means seeing marginalised people not as a burden but as resilient, capable and creative partners to solve their own problems.  A bit like how central Government should view us!

We’re putting £80,000 in to the North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission (PTC).  There’s £20,000 match funding from the Tyne and Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation. Too often, policy makers wring their hands about poverty, but make no effort to understand the actual, on-the-ground problems that trap people.  A PTC directly engages decision makers with the people experiencing poverty first-hand.  The result?  Practical measures that make a difference. 

Co-design also means trusting communities with resources. This Tuesday I’m launching our third Crowdfund North of Tyne.  That’s £200,000 from the Mayor’s Capacity Fund, for Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty projects. It’s a springboard for locally-led greening and food security initiatives. I’m empowering communities so they can directly tackle the climate emergency and food poverty where they live. This goes hand in hand with the work I’m doing to transition the North East to a zero-carbon economy via our £18 million Green New Deal and £25 million investment in offshore wind.

Trusting the regions and local communities with power and resources is the only way to level up. Along with my Metro Mayor colleagues across the North, I’m showing that when Westminster lets go of the reins so decisions are made here, we improve people’s lives.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5 July 2021

Building a Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty North East

Cooperation is what makes humans special.  Just look at the vaccine roll out.  The way we went from research and development, into production, into the public sector organisation getting jabs into people’s arms.  It also shows how vulnerable our economy is – our very lives are – when nature is disrupted and our environment becomes malevolent. 

I declared a climate emergency two years ago.  Then, Earth’s atmosphere had 414 parts per million of carbon dioxide.  Today it’s 419 parts per million.  To prevent catastrophic climate damage, and keep within the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees of global heating, the levels have to be kept below 430 part per million.  At the current rate, we’re going to break that limit in just over two years. 

“The Government must get real on delivery… Continue to be slow and timid and the opportunity will slip from our hands.” So says Lord Deben, chair of the independent, statutory Climate Change Committee, established by the 2008 Climate Change Act. 

Their report last week praised the government’s promises.  But was damning when it examined the evidence of delivering on them.  All bluster and no bite.  The policies don’t back up the rhetoric.  They are gambling everything on one report due out in the Autumn – the Net Zero Strategy.  It had better be good because Britain’s global credibility rests on it.  Not to mention our future.  And it had better be on time, before COP26 in November.

Last week was a big week for the North of Tyne Combined Authority.  We held our first Green Economy Summit, bringing partners from across the region together to shape our future.  Industry, research, public services, and universities were all involved. 

Covid and the climate crisis have caused us to rethink how our economy works.  It can no longer be about rising share prices or housing bubbles.  It’s about a secure future for everyone.  That’s how we take people with us.  We build a Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty North East. 

Our devolved skills programme is giving everyone a chance.  We fund vocational skills like getting an HGV license or technical skills that lead to high-paying jobs.  And we’ve put £2 million aside for those in high-carbon industries to retrain in clean energy and the jobs of the future. 

Our SpaceHive crowdfunder directly funds community groups to green their places and tackle food poverty.  Our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change has produced its recommendations which we’re already acting on.  Our Good Work Pledge underpins the thousands of jobs we’re creating.  It values the good employers in our region because they value the people who do the work. 

We need better connections into and out of our region.  We’re in a crazy situation where the East Coast Mainline is so constrained by its Victorian infrastructure that we can’t benefit from HS2 or Northern Powerhouse rail until we get the funding to reopen the Leamside line. 

To top it all, there is a planned timetable table change to go from two trains per hour to Manchester, down to one per hour.  It’ll reduce services to Morpeth and Berwick.  Reducing connectivity between northern towns and cities is the opposite of levelling up. 

I’ve pushed back hard.  At Wednesday’s Rail North Committee I managed to get agreement to halt the changes.  Now we need the Department for Transport to step in. 

Last Monday I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps.  I made all these points.  You know what he said?  “Jamie, your nothing if not consistent.  You make that point every time we speak.” Well good, because it’s been too long since people listened to our region, and I’m going keep fighting our corner. 

And of course, we need to decarbonise our energy. 

We’re investing £25 million in our offshore wind and subsea sector.  Improving infrastructure, like stronger cranes to handle bigger turbines.  And we’re investing in minewater heating, to turn our high-carbon past into a low-carbon future. 

Our Green New Deal, our offshore wind investment, our high-tech start-up programmes, our partnership with BritishVolt, our reopening the Northumberland Line.  Creating over 4,000 jobs, and counting. 

The Combined Authority I lead is delivering on climate action and creating good green jobs, right now. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28 June 2021

Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not

Talent was in the North East last week, along with Hollywood fever.  The latest Indiana Jones film is being shot at stunning Bamburgh Castle. It struck me that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981.  I was 11. How time flies. I expect Harrison Ford is thinking that, though anyone who saw him cycling through Northumberland, in Lycra, would have guessed he’s 78 years old. But as Indie says in Raiders, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”. 

I’m not surprised they’ve chosen the North East as a location, though. For over a millennium, the North East has been a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity. If you’re not convinced, take a look at the Lindisfarne Gospels when we bring them to the Laing next year.  The electric light bulb was invented here.  And the train.  We powered the industrial revolution.  In 1878, the world’s first hydroelectric power scheme was developed at Cragside, Northumberland.  Harrison Ford is a climate activist – I wonder if he’ll visit while he’s here. 

It’s this ingenuity, and our reputation as friendly, hard-working people that will restore the North East’s economy.  That’s why as North of Tyne Mayor I’ve launched not one, but three separate funding streams to nurture talent and ingenuity. 

The North of Tyne Culture and Creative fund gives freelancers and small firms the money to make their ideas real.  £2.6 million is available as grants, loans and equity.  That’s backed with skills, advice and making connections to get your project off the ground.  If you’ve got a business idea in culture or the creative industries, check it out.  And tell your mates.  It’s on the North of Tyne website, www.northoftyne-ca.gov.uk/news/creative/

I’ve been crusading about climate change for years. And the Holy Grail of climate change is achieving net-zero. Where we emit less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than nature removes.  Business is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.  And business can be part of the solution.  Any size business can innovate and help. 

The North of Tyne Recovery Innovation Fund is offering businesses £1.5m in grants and one-to-one support to turn ideas into reality.  You can get between £5,000 and £10,000.  To qualify, your innovation has to help either with climate change, creating jobs, or making our economy more inclusive.  Innovation doesn’t need to be complicated. It could be as simple as using different technology, or changing a business process. 

There’s two briefings coming up on Tuesday 29th and Wednesday 30th June.  Register at ntca-innovationrecoverygrant.co.uk, and please spread the word.  Small firms are the engines of innovation. 

You don’t have to own a business to make the world a better place.  Identifying local talent means supporting local communities. Practical, inclusive, projects bring communities together.

The North of Tyne Crowdfunder has had two rounds of funding already.  Things like beekeeping on the Meadowell Estate in North Shields. Planting flowers to brighten up your streets. And community film-making.  Although probably not with the budget of Indiana Jones.  

It’s been so successful, we’re launching a third. 

It works like this.  You have an idea that will benefit your community. We’ll give you help and advice to explain it, with our partners Spacehive.  You build support in your local community – we can give you the tools to help.  And if people in your community like the idea, we’ll give you funding. 

It’s part of my manifesto commitment to tackle climate change and food poverty.  This round is called Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty.  This can be anything from setting up a community garden or allotment, a food club or community café, or your original idea.   Remember, shy bairns get nowt. If you’ve got an idea for improving life here, apply. Better still, get a group of mates and do it together. We’re launching the third round on Tuesday 6th July.  Have a look on our website for more information. www.northoftyne-ca.gov.uk/news/zero-carbon-zero-poverty/

I talk a lot about devolution.  About how our destiny should be in our hands.  And how decision making is better when it’s not centralised.  Well this is me putting it into action.  Directly giving the people of the North of Tyne a chance to nurture their talent, themselves. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21 June 2021

A rich and vibrant regional economy in our sights

The words “Annual General Meeting” generally have the same effect as prescription sleeping pills.  Appointments to committees, scrutiny reports, and dozens of pages of accounts. 

But they are a keystone of democracy and accountability.  It shows the public, amongst other things, what we’ve spent.  The corporate budget is our running costs:  staff wages, office accommodation, IT spending, legal fees, that we spend delivering our targets. 

We’re smashing those targets out of the park.  We have a commitment to government to create 10,000 new, full-time jobs over 30 years.  It’s two years and one month since I was elected, so we should have 700 jobs in the pipeline.  The actual results? Across 66 live projects, we’ve leveraged in £193 million of extra money, we’re creating 4,193 jobs, and safeguarded another 2,673 jobs.  Over 10,000 people have had new training opportunities.  We’ve a whole catalogue of projects tackling climate change, helping communities, building homes, supporting local businesses and protecting vulnerable people in our region. 

At the same time our corporate running costs came in £599,000 under budget.  Given the disruption of the last fifteen months under the pandemic, that is a remarkable achievement.  I’m proud staff team we’ve built at the North of Tyne.  National government could only dream of being this effective and efficient. 

Yet you won’t see a headline anywhere that reads, “Mayor quietly exceeds his targets while coming in under budget.” Despite the fact that the vast majority of people want their politicians to do exactly that.  So if you could spread the word, I’d appreciate it. 

Instead politicians criticise England footballers for taking the knee.  Or Gareth Southgate’s open letter defining Englishness.  For what it’s worth, I agree with the England manager.  But like me, his tenure should, ultimately, be judged by results. 

So back to the excitement that was the North of Tyne Combined Authority’s Annual General Meeting.  Since March 2020, the emergency Covid regulations have allowed us meet and take decisions online.  But in their wisdom, those who write the regulations coming out of Whitehall tell us we must now meet in person. 

Infection control procedures are still in place, and we lead by example, and maintaining the highest standards of public health.  Masks, distancing, hand sanitizer.  So it was still far from back to normal.  And quite right too – the Delta variant is highly transmissible.  As I said in my opening remarks at the AGM, please make sure you get both doses of your vaccine as soon as you’re eligible.  I had my second dose weeks ago. 

We rotate our meetings around the region.  So there we were, in a function suite in Newcastle Civic Centre, distanced so far apart that we needed microphones to talk to each other.  A warm welcome to new cabinet members Karen Kilgour from Newcastle, Carl Johnson from North Tyneside and Richard Wearmouth from Northumberland. 

Placing thanks on record to our outgoing cabinet members Joyce McCarty, Bruce Pickard and Richard Dodd.  Continuing our partnership with the North East LEP, represented by Lucy Winskell, and the voluntary sector, represented by Robin Fry. 

And agreeing our corporate plan for the next three years, strongly backed by our existing cabinet members, Norma Redfearn, Nick Forbes and Glen Sanderson, leaders of our three local authorities. 

Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty is our objective.  We’ve completed our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change, and our Green New Deal is motoring.  The best way to defeat poverty is to create thousands of good, green jobs – and we’re doing that in spades.  But at Tuesday’s AGM, we also agreed our Child Poverty Prevention Programme.  A series of initiatives to directly assist families who are struggling financially. 

That 22% of kids in the North East are in poverty is a moral outrage.  It’s also economically dysfunctional – we all benefit when bairns get a good start in life.  The irony is that over 70% of kids in poverty come from working households.  We need to make work pay. 

We’ll know the job’s done when our regional economy is so rich and vibrant that everyone can build a life here, and our young people don’t need to move away to pursue their dreams. 

AGM’s can be a compelling part of democracy after all. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 14 June 2021

What transport system do we want? How do we pay for it?

When we talk about transport there are two questions. First, what transport system do we want? And second, how are we going to pay for it? It’s the second one that causes all the problems.

Transport is a fundamental part of everything we do.  It’s a mistake to let the market dictate its direction.  It needs long-term planning. 

At the moment, funding is allocated by short-term competitive competitions.  Imagine you’ve got to host a meal.  But you don’t know your budget, or when you have to serve the meal, or what type of food, or even if anyone is coming until an hour beforehand.  You’d have no time to plan, and little opportunity to innovate.  That’s why so many transport schemes end up being variations on the last thing that happened, made from left-over ingredients. 

The planet is on the precipice of a climate catastrophe. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced £1 billion for green transport.  Then triumphantly announced “£27billion for tarmac”.  There’s a mismatch there and I don’t think I’m the only one who sees it.  You can’t level up with concrete. 

We’ve learned to assume that the way to transport an 80Kg human is with a 1500Kg vehicle.  Then leave that 1500Kg vehicle lying around all day before driving it home.  I’m an engineer, the thermodynamics of that just don’t work.  There’s a place for cars, but they’re not as essential as we think. 

It’s not so long ago we all assumed that buying videos and DVDs was the best way to watch films at home.  These days, streaming is more convenient and often cheaper.  Transport should be about moving people, not cars.  We should treat Mobility as a Service – known as MaaS.  But what would that look like? 

We could access all our transport needs through one smartphone app.  The technology already exists to give us options for every journey – Metro, taxi, bus, bike, walk, and how to integrate them.  It can give us real-time location data, buy tickets and reserve us a seat, or an eBike if we need it when we get off the other end.  And it’s all integrated so it will calculate the cheapest ticket all the way to your destination.  It can even book you a car in a car club and reserve a parking space if you need to drive.  When it’s as easy as walking out the front door and turning the key in your car, people will migrate away from cars. 

If we invest in bus priority gates, and drivers don’t need to spend time taking fares, buses can be faster than cars – once you take parking into account.  Mix in secure cycle parking, and invest in showers in workplaces and public buildings, and cycling will increase.  Get ourselves fit and trim, and head off a health crisis that’s coming our way. 

So how do we pay for it? 

The truth is, we already are.  We’re just in denial about it.  It costs £4,600 per year to own and run a car.  Most of the time it’s parked up somewhere rusting.  I’ve just sold my car, and am joining a car club. 

Obesity related illness will cost the UK £49billion a year in by 2050.  Road maintenance is so expensive because we’re taking 1500kg of steel with us every time we go somewhere.  We need to re-allocate the way we spend our national resources. 

We must fund revenue as well as capital.  We’re going to get the first of our new Metro Trains in 2023, but still don’t know if we’ll have the revenue to run them when the current funding runs out. 

In the North we’ve been underfunded by £66billion.  We will only level up when our fate is in our hands.  With long-term funding so we can plan.  I’ve written about fiscal devolution before – the power to generate wealth here, in the North East. 

Without this rethink, we’ll be trapped in transport Groundhog Day.  Asking why some people are stuck in traffic jams, others are stuck in transport poverty, while type 2 diabetes runs rampant, and our planet is burning around us.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 07 June 2021

Welcome to the real North

There are some fascinating photos online by Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.  They cover the North East and focus on Byker, where she lived, showing the gritty, grubby reality of our region in the early 1970s. 

Not that long ago, this is how people pictured the North East.  Pit villages.  Fishing.  Heavy industry.  Not quite the dark, satanic mills, but nigh enough.  It reminds me of that brilliant Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch – ‘a house? Luxury! There were 150 of us living in a small shoe box in’t middle o’t road!’

The rest of the country probably hasn’t moved on from those views, except maybe to add ‘good place for stag and hen parties’. 

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the North East know the truth.

We know that we can walk in the footsteps of John Dobson and Richard Grainger, marvel at some superb architecture, and enjoy some great food while we’re at it. 

We can go back even further and walk in the footsteps of the Roman centurions, posted to one of the furthest outposts of their Empire.  We can even visit a Metro station with signage in Latin.

We can transport ourselves, and our kids, to Hogwarts and relish over 700 years of history while the kids have a broomstick lesson.

We can walk the miles of stunning coastline.  I know I’m biased, but it really is magnificent.  And we can see seals and puffins in their natural habitat.

We can visit a working fish quay, and choose from an impressive array of fish and shellfish – Fortnum and Mason’s fish counter has nowt on North Shields. 

We can watch some great live shows and theatre, and see films on the big or small screen.

All this, and more, is on our doorstep.  How lucky are we?

We can make things even better, of course.  A lot of people miss out – we can improve affordability as well as physical accessibility.

Everything we enjoy doing needs to be ecologically sustainable, or our grandkids won’t be enjoying those seals and puffins. 

And we need to create a more joined-up transport system, so it’s easy to see how you get from A to B on a range of public transport options, that don’t cost the earth. 

We also need to keep our attractions authentic, so visitors feel they are being welcomed to the real North, and not to a plastic copy.  One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that local people, as well as tourists, want to have a grand day out.  Local festivals are key to this – making local people feel the event is their own.  Things like the Newcastle Improv Festival.  How brilliant to give people the opportunity to perform their own stand-up routines. 

The pandemic is likely to mean lots more people are having a holiday in this country, rather than abroad.  Staying local will be great for the local economy.  We have great scenery and historical landmarks, but we want a rich tapestry of food, music and local entertainment too. 

That’s why the North of Tyne is investing over £3 million in a two-year calendar of tourism and events.  And another £3.25m to support the recovery of the culture and creative industry.  We know that happiness is as dependent on what you do outside of work as what you do in work.

I’ve had several meetings recently with Sir Brendan Foster, and I’m supporting his sterling efforts to get the Government to financially back a bid to stage the 2026 European Athletics Championships in the North East of England. 

This would involve over 1500 athletes and 6 days of competition, showcasing the region, and with the potential to generate tens of millions of pounds of economic impact.  Hundreds of jobs and spin-out opportunities, and bring tens of thousands of visitors and spectators here. 

Brendan also persuaded me to run in the Great North Run on 21st September.  I’ve run marathons and half-marathons before, but not for a while!  We’ll see what effects the lockdown’s had on my stamina and my knees! I hope to see many of you there cheering us on. 


*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 31 May 2021

Coming out of a hell of a year

From B&Bs in Berwick to micro pubs in Newcastle, small businesses across our region are opening up.  They’ve had a hell of a year.  No trading for six months has taken its toll on hospitality and cultural businesses.  The self-employed have been hit hardest, with only a fraction of the support of other companies.  Over three million self-employed people fell through that gaps of government financial support.  Campaign group Excluded UK have been fighting for them.

So while there’s much relief to be moving tentatively back to normal, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are carrying a shocking level of debt.  The Federation of Small Businesses tells me that the total SME debt across Britain is jaw-dropping £100 billion!

Small businesses bring character and individuality to a place.  They bring hard financial benefits too.  Money spent with local firms recirculates in an area.  They buy more local products and services than big corporations.  The multiplier effect of buying local, rather than from a corporate chain, creates more local jobs. 

Right at the start of the pandemic, the North of Tyne set up a Covid Response Fund.  This was £5 million of emergency funding for local SMEs, to plug gaps in government support.  We’ve safeguarded 2,673 jobs over and above the support from central government.

Last week I spoke to local business owners, including Julie, who co-owns the Mean Eyed Cat in Newcastle.  It’s a cracking little pub, loads of character, the sort of place that adds to the vibe of the city.  Julie spoke about getting through the past year for her and other micro pubs.  It’s been hard.  They’ve lost a year.  Eat-out-to-help-out didn’t help them.  They paid their staff top ups above the furlough rate when they could.  Nine people earn their living at the pub. 

Then last autumn, government forced northern businesses to close under the Tier system.  They lowered furlough to 67%.  It was dicey time for local hospitality businesses.  Northern Mayors pushed back against government.  Furlough was restored to 80%, and many SMEs gained more support. “We’ve been looking forward to opening up in full, but it’s a pandemic,” she told me. “We need people to be safe … we’re not going to rush to change things, we’re going to move steadily forwards.” Opening up still means a reduced capacity from pre-Covid days, but just as many staff.  Every customer gets table service, and every table needs sanitising between customers.

The big picture is that Julie’s business is one of the North East’s 40,000 SMEs that form the backbone of our local economy.  SMEs account for 48% of our region’s turnover and 50% of the private sector employment. I’m seeing a lot of research and surveys right now.  They’re all concluding pretty much the same thing:  SMEs in our region face a productivity and sustainability challenge.  

That’s why we’re putting in £1.6 million of our Digital Growth and Innovation Programme.  Hundreds of small businesses will get help to trade online, redesign their operations, and tap in to data science to develop their income. 

We’re working flat out to make a difference, and credit where it’s due, central government support has made a huge difference, despite the gaps for SMEs and the self-employed.  But we’re not out of the woods.  The outsourced and centralised test track and trace system has failed again.  Local health teams were not given the details of over 700 people infected with the Indian Covid variant.  This risks more outbreaks, and reimposition of restrictions.  For £37 billion, you’d expect the test & trace system to do the basics.  Compare that with the vaccine programme, which has been successful because it was run through the NHS. 

We’ve put £1.26 million into a Rural Business Growth Fund.  Our £3.25 million Culture and Creative Recovery Fund launches in a couple of weeks.  Our festivals programme will come online later this year – restrictions allowing.  This will create more local activity, creating jobs but also making the North of Tyne a more vibrant place to live.  After the past year, I’m sure we’re all looking forward to that. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 24 May 2021

Beware of the Leopard

Town planning is as old as cities.  The Romans did it.  In fact, the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley had a planned water and sanitation system 2,600 years before Hadrian’s Wall was built.    

As Britain moved out of the medieval era, towns grew.   People lived closer together, and governments needed to minimise disputes.  The risk of fire spreading from building to building had to be controlled.  Thatch has been banned on roofs, street widths controlled, and bricks and slates made mandatory in most places since the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Grenfell Tower gave us a harsh reminder of what happens when corners are cut and safety comes second. 

In 1947 the planning system brought together various competing interests for the first time. The main push was to improve living standards through better quality housing.  It also considered place-making, green spaces and community facilities.  Planning featured strongly in the 1942 Beveridge Report.  It demonstrated the link between good town planning and an effective welfare state.

Planning is not just about safety and aesthetics.  It has an economic impact.  The amount of land given over to car parking, the ease a bus can navigate an estate.  The ability to travel to and from work, college, the shops or cinema are all affected by planning decisions.  So are the density and locations of GP surgeries and schools.  Good planning improves our health and prosperity and protects us from a free-for-all of short-termism.  It’s interesting that the NHS has kept its special place in the heart of the nation but the value of planning is unsung. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the 1947 system was placing development rights under public control. Landowners lost the right to develop indiscriminately on their own land.  Using land for existing uses was unchanged, but new uses required planning permission. These decision making powers were given to local councils.  It heralded the biggest shift in power between land owners and ordinary citizens in British history. 

Since 2010 council planning departments across England have suffered budget cuts of over 50%.    Developers spend £millions paying lawyers to find loopholes and haggle down the public benefit.  If they can make an argument for not building a school, or reducing the number of affordable homes, they add £millions to their bottom line.  It’s a David and Goliath battle. 

In last week’s Queen’s speech the government pledged to change planning laws.  Areas will be designated for ‘growth’, ‘protection’ or ‘regeneration’.  In ‘growth’ zones, developers can build without needing individual planning consents.

Local Authorities will have to develop Local Plans designating these zones.  You’ll be permitted to comment when your Local Plan is drawn up.  But that plan will last at least ten years.  Imagine contacting your council to object to a development only to discover you should have objected 10 years ago.

It’s like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Arthur Dent discovers they plan to flatten his home the day before the bulldozers arrive. 

“But, Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months,” he’s told.  “You found the notice, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”

I’m in favour of reforming planning laws.  They should commit to affordable, zero-carbon homes, increasing bio-diversity and protecting our natural world.  And maintaining the right for people to influence what happens to the places where they live.  

I spoke to Robert Jenrick MP, the Secretary of State, about this some months ago.  It was clear to me he’d already made up his mind.  In January last year, Mr Jenrick was asked by Richard Desmond to overrule a previous planning decision.  Desmond was building a £1 billion development along the Thames.  Jenrick did as his billionaire friend asked.  This intervention saved Desmond from paying £45 million to the Community Infrastructure Levy – money for schools, cycle lanes, affordable housing, and parks.  Two weeks later, Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.  Draw your own conclusions. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 17 May 2021

Train the people. Create the jobs. Generate the wealth.

Most political leaders get to choose their cabinets – local authority leaders, Scottish or Welsh first minister, the Prime Minister. Combined Authority Mayors are the exception. Our cabinets comprise the leaders and deputies from each constituent council. I’m looking forward to welcoming the new North of Tyne Cabinet Members, regardless of party.


Despite the narrative about a Labour collapse in the North East, Labour stands strong in the North of Tyne. There hasn’t been a Conservative elected in Newcastle since 1992. In North Tyneside, Labour still dominates the council with 51 seats out of 60, up from 48. Labour’s Norma Redfearn was re-elected with an overwhelming mandate as Borough Mayor. Rural Northumberland stayed under Conservative control literally by luck of the draw. Two seats were tied, and results decided by pulling the winner out of the ballot box. Interestingly, two new Green councillors have been elected in Northumberland.

I’m a democratic socialist, and I place democracy on equal footing with socialism. If there’s one thing this election shows us, it’s that devolution is on the agenda. Scottish and Welsh incumbent parties have done well, as have Metro Mayors across the north. In a poll for the Centre for Cities, 83% of people said they wanted their mayor to have more devolved powers and budgets.

The Combined Authority exists to bring good, well-paid jobs here. To improve skills. To enable people to re-skill and change their career if they want to. And to close the prosperity gap, which we can see every time we walk along any of our high streets.

To do that, we need to spend money. And we’re doing that in a highly effective, targeted way. £9 million on regeneration projects like the Shields Ferry landing, repair of the Protection Jetty surrounding the Fish Quay, and redevelopment of three housing sites in North Shields. £10 million on our Recovery Innovation Fund. This includes vouchers to help businesses adapt and utilise new technologies, innovations in tourism, and projects to adapt underused places and spaces.

We’re not just focusing on work. We’ve a rich history of culture and creativity. We’re working with Creative England and spending £3.25 million on a North of Tyne Culture and Creative Recovery Programme which starts this month.

Dealing with the climate emergency is a priority for me. We’re putting over £4 million into clean energy. Our North of Tyne Offshore Infrastructure Fund is preparing the facilities to bring green jobs to the Port of Blyth, and the iconic site of Swans Energy Park – formerly the old Swan Hunter shipyard.

We’re driving innovation in green jobs with our £10 million Green New Deal Fund. These projects will directly reduce carbon emissions and create skilled jobs. This Green New Deal positions us a national leader.

Next week I’m signing the steel at the construction of NUCastle – the new youth centre we’re funding near St James’s. In with the £2.6 million funding is the money to run outreach programmes, using sports to help young people improve their education and job prospects.

We’ve got world-class brains and universities here. We’re investing £5 million in partnership with the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, turning that world-class R&D into jobs and start-up businesses. And another £10 million with the National Innovation Centre for Data creating jobs and innovation with local digital businesses.

On top of all of this, we’re delivering a North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission. This anchors our work in the real lives and challenges of some of our most vulnerable citizens. We’ll be delivering the recommendations from our Citizens’ assembly on Climate Change. Rolling out our Community Hubs programme. Establishing our festivals & events programme once Covid is over. And funding our inward investment programme to attract firms to set up here.

In total we’re spending £59m, creating more than 4,310 new jobs. Regardless of the election results, all of the Cabinet will work together, roll up our sleeves and crack on with the job. Supported by the amazing Combined Authority staff team we’ve built from scratch over the past two years. Our task is to create a zero-carbon, zero-poverty North of Tyne.

Train the people. Create the jobs. Generate the wealth.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 10 May 2021

Downing Street is a Moral Cesspit

There’s something rotten in the state of Britain.

In 1963, Cabinet Minister John Profumo resigned after lying about an extra-marital affair with Christine Keeler. That was sleaze.

I agree with former Tory Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who said about Coalition minister Chris Huhne’s affair, “What goes on in people’s private lives is a subject that fascinates the tabloid press but is irrelevant to the job they are trying to do.” Mind you, that was before Huhne was imprisoned for perverting the course of justice.

What we’re seeing now goes far beyond sleaze. We’re witnessing an executive spiralling out of control.

We’re grown-ups. We know relationships sometimes break up. No one should be stigmatised for that. But our Prime Minister has a serial history of getting women pregnant while he’s married to someone else. The failure to manage contraception is worrying trait for someone with his finger on the nuclear button.

Which takes us to Jennifer Arcuri, one of his girlfriends while married to his second wife. Johnson denied the affair. She admitted it. He spent taxpayer money taking her on three top-level trade missions, despite her businesses not meeting the criteria.

Wallpapergate and Cash-for-Curtains are not matters of taste. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about snobbery over the “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” My wife and I had our wedding list there. But I literally cannot imagine paying £840 for a roll of wallpaper. The failure to redecorate a flat within the £30,000 taxpayer funded budget is shocking. Johnson is the First Lord of the Treasury. He is ultimately in charge of our public finances.

This is about whether he’s broken the law. Did he fail to declare a donation of £58,000? He says he’s repaid the money now. But it’s no defence in law to say, “I gave it back after I was caught”.

There’s his undeclared conversations about sorting out a billionaire’s “tax problems”. Imagine being able to text the PM to “sort out” your tax bill.

His ravenous pursuit of all seven deadly sins sets the tone for this government.

David Cameron – another former Bullingdon Boy – is up to his eyes in a financial scandal “as close to fraud as you could imagine”. Cameron stood to make £60 million. Rishi Sunak has questions to answer. We taxpayers may get stung for £5 billion! Greensill also offered nurses pay-day loans, profiting by packaging them up into securities, just like the sub-prime mortgages that caused the financial crash. The last thing NHS workers need is more debt. They deserve a pay rise!

Matt Hancock’s implicated with VIP lanes. He owns shares in his sister’s waste disposal company, Topwood Limited. Topwood was awarded a Framework Deal to provide NHS services just months after he became Health Secretary in July 2018.

Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, secured a £12,000 donation from billionaire pornographer Richard Desmond. This was, of course, nothing to do with Jenrick’s personal intervention to rush through a planning deal so Desmond could dodge an infrastructure levy bill of £45 million from Tower Hamlets council. After all, if you were taking a back-hander to let someone off £45m, you’d want more than 12 grand.

Remember Hanbury? The lobbying firm run by Dominic Cummings’s mates, handed £900,000 for opinion polling on the pandemic. Remember Ayanda, the company linked to Liz Truss, fast tracked through VIP lanes, who supplied £155 million worth of unusable face masks for NHS frontline staff? Remember Alex Bourne, who ran Hancock’s local pub? Who despite having no prior experience, was given an NHS contract worth £millions after sending Hancock a WhatsApp message. I could go on, but there’s a word limit on this column.

A report into racism has been condemned for misrepresenting the experts it quoted. Sir Alex Allan, the PM’s advisor on ministerial standards resigned after Priti Patel’s bullying. Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain, a whole cascade of advisors resigning and turning against Johnson. It’s less like Hamlet and more like the final act of Macbeth, with the crazed ruler off the leash, deserted by his lackies, indulging in angry tirades to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” and then actually letting the bodies pile high in their thousands. If we see any losses for the Tories next week, the sharks will circle for a leadership bid.

Johnson’s biggest mistake is believing voters have “priced in” his immorality. That he’s “non-stick”. Here’s another metaphor for you: the straw that broke the camel’s back.

When Tory stalwarts like the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne say, “Downing Street has become a moral cesspit” and Boris Johnson is “proven to be a repeated and habitual liar”, we know the Rubicon has been crossed.

I don’t believe for a second that every Tory politician is sleazy or every Labour politician is a saint. When you’re casting your vote on Thursday, ignore the hype. Look at values. Look at policies. Look at integrity. Ask your candidates on social media: will they condemn the sleaze that is rotting inside our national government?

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 3 May 2021

Live Your Life With Purpose

Stewart Lee was once given some advice on how to earn a living in the transient world of stand-up comedy. “You get 5000 people to like you, and they all give you £10 a year. That’s a living.

”It’s a risk, pursuing your passion. And it’s not an easy option, as any established musician or actor will testify. Honing skill and building experience takes hard graft. It’s not surprising that most people are encouraged to go for a secure job.

Young people are not getting the chance to take a chance. Students now graduate with debts exceeding £50k. Housing costs are so high that unless they can draw on the bank of Mam & Dad, there’s no time to learn the ropes. Working class kids are priced out of following their passion.

The flip side is the rise of automation and proliferation of the gig economy. Workers of all ages are feeling the insecurity. Manual and clerical jobs are being replaced with robots and algorithms. The nature of work has been changing for a while. Many “self-employed” or flexible hours jobs were sold with the promise of being your own boss. But too many are finding themselves on a timesheet treadmill. They take the risks of no money coming in, and get only a tiny share of the rewards if business booms.

The passion economy celebrates individuality and a hunger to do what you love. Digital platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon and Buy Me A Coffee allow people to earn money from niche creative ideas. In fact, finding that niche idea is a cornerstone described by Adam Davidson in his book, The Passion Economy. Find an idea that’s too small for corporates to bother with, then make it your own. You might only have a few dozen clients, but if you pick the right idea, it could work.

The Japanese idea of Ikigai embodies the idea of living your life with purpose. As with most Japanese translation into English, the nuance is difficult to capture. The western interpretation is depicted as a Venn diagram with four overlapping aspects of life. What you love; what you are good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for. Or, in other words, find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

Once I started looking, I saw evidence of this passion economy everywhere. One of my friends set up Sobersistas, which offers support to women who want to control their drinking. Another friend used to teach MMA, giving one-to-one tuition to City of London types. He’s now gone on to set up a successful MMA gym in Newcastle. I’m sure you know people who have had the bravery to follow a passion, maybe you are one of them.

The pandemic and lockdown has got a lot of people thinking about their work. Health, economic growth and jobs are all intertwined now. Do you really want to work 9-5? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. What has been unlocked is seeing what is possible. I’ve seen reports that through furlough and lockdown, tens of thousands of people are considering starting part-time businesses, pursuing their passions

.I’m keen to support people brave enough to set up on their own. At the Combined Authority our Digital Adoption programme provides technical know-how for people to run businesses. Just Google, “North of Tyne digital adoption”. Our Creative and Cultural fund that will be onstream soon, to support freelancers and creative businesses.

Not everyone can take such a risk, though. Stagnant wages and rising costs mean too few people get to build up any savings. If you’ve got kids to feed and rent to pay, that regular pay day has a lot going for it. We need to make all jobs more fulfilling. The unleashing of human creativity is one of the strongest arguments for Universal Basic Income. Giving people the freedom to set-up a creative business, or the opportunity to re-skill for a new career, would benefit us all.

It’s a vision for the future. But like all futures, some of it exists in the present.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 26.4.2021

What Would a Universal Basic Income Look Like

42, as every HG2G fan knows, is the answer to life, the universe and everything. It’s also the title of a crowdfunded book including Douglas Adams’s notes on work, life and technology. His memo-to-self shows that even a writer with his confidence and fluency struggled. “Writing isn’t so bad, really…” he wrote, and “…attack it, don’t let it attack you”

.I’m sure Douglas Adams will have experienced a thrill of achievement when he finished the four books in the trilogy. But that got me thinking about the link between work and motivation.

There’s obviously the extrinsic motivation of work: the need to pay the bills and, if your job pays enough, to build up some savings for a rainy day. Then there’s the intrinsic motivation of work – the enjoyment we get from it, whether camaraderie, sense of social contribution, or the achievement of a job well done.

There was a great academic study funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank, examining the link between money and motivation. They were surprised by their results. If the task was a basic mechanical job – shovelling dirt into the back of a wagon, say – then paying a bonus improves performance. But a task that involves even rudimentary cognitive skill – planning or creativity – a larger bonus reward leads to poorer performance.

Other studies have shown that autonomy and trust – trust in us as employees, and trust between employees – are much, much stronger motivators than money. In fact, the best use of money as a motivator, is to pay people enough to take the question of money off the table. When people know they are financially secure, they work better.

​Which, by the way, blows the argument for £multi-million bonuses out of the water. Serco is the latest example, the firm awarded the privatised test and trace contract. Despite the National Audit Office report that there was “no evidence the £22bn programme had reduced rates of Covid-19 in England”, Rupert Soames, brother of a Tory MP and CEO of Serco, will get a £4.9 million payout this year. Clearly no correlation between social value and personal reward there.

What of the dignity of labour? Most of us instinctively feel there’s a link between work and a sense of self-esteem that goes beyond money. In a report called, intriguingly, ‘The Employment Dosage’, researchers at Cambridge University answered the question: ‘How Much Work is Needed for Health and Wellbeing?’ The study lasted nine years and involved 71,000 people. The result is surprising. One day a week. One day a week gives us all the social and psychological benefits of working 5 days or more.

The automation is already available to enable us to work a 3 to 4 day week. The challenge is not productivity, but the distribution of wealth. I‘d wager that most people would work fewer hours if they had enough money to pay their bills and support their families. But how much would that be? Would a Universal Basic Income be the answer? How would we set the level of UBI?

In 1930, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. He suggested that, within a century, an enormous growth in productivity and resultant increase in living standards would mean that people could choose to work only 15 hours a week. In terms of basic productive output, he was right.

We should be thinking about which jobs really need to be done. It’s difficult, though – how many people would be happy to say their job wasn’t necessary? A YouGov survey found that 37% of Brits thought their job did not contribute ‘meaningfully’ to the world. So, 1 in 3 people feel if their job was not done, the world would be no worse off.

Which takes us back to Douglas Adams. His Golgafrinchans divided their society into three: the thinkers, the doers, and the “middlemen” – who did pointless jobs. They sent the useless third off to a distant planet (Earth), keeping only the useful people back on Golgafrincham. Sadly, they were wiped out by a raging virulent disease, caught from dirty telephones. And Earth ended up with the telephone sanitisers, middle managers and tired TV producers.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19.4.21

Invest in Staff and They will Invest in You

The notion of a job for life is fast receding. Not so long ago, a job at “The Ministry” in Longbenton, or maybe with the local council, meant financial security. Not in any sense of luxury, but the stability to raise a family, followed by a decent pension after you’d put in your decades of service. Whole communities thrived around the pit towns and villages in South East Northumberland or the shipbuilding communities along the banks of the Tyne and the Wear.

Even when I started work in the mid 1980’s, the goal for most working class kids was to get into a skilled profession. Apprenticeships date back to the guilds of the middle-ages. The 1964 Industry Training Boards formalised the system. It took at least four years to qualify, and you had a skill that would earn you a living anywhere you went. But with over three million unemployed, coupled with the dismantling of British manufacturing, we saw that quality of industrial training all but disappear. By 1990 traditional apprenticeships accounted for less than 1% of the workforce.

After the riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Chapletown and Moss Side, the 1983 Youth Training Scheme was launched. You got an extra tenner on top of the dole, and an introduction to the world of work at a time when youth unemployment was sky high. The scheme was criticised as a poor comparison to a proper apprenticeship. Lasting only six months to a year, and offering little in the way of skills training, too few YTS placements resulted in permanent jobs. The whole approach was the wrong way round. If your starting premise is, “we have a load of kids who we need to stop from being idle” you’ll never design anything sustainable.

Almost as bad is the “we need to train kids as a supply of skilled labour for businesses” approach. While it seems logical at first glance, it does not survive contact with economic reality. Innovation, automation, and technological disruption make it damn near impossible to train anyone for a lifelong career in an industry that might not exist in ten years time.

Jobs and skills are two sides of the same coin. It’s just under two years since I was elected Mayor. Already we’re creating 3,200 new jobs by supporting local firms and bringing new ones here. This past week we’ve landed 200 more high-skilled, well-paid jobs in Newcastle with Global Software company Xplor. If we’re to thrive as a region, as a country, there has to be a route for people to retrain and get these jobs.

Our jobs can be a source of pride. One of the first things we ask when we meet someone, or when a friend tells us they have a new romantic partner, is what they do for a living. But this can also be self-limiting – people can typecast themselves.

Often, the best way to retrain is inside your existing workplace. Until recently, the Union Learning Fund worked with union reps to encourage people to increase their skills and progress their careers. They could earn more, and their employers benefited from continuity. The withdrawal of this fund by central government was so short sighted. Every £1 spent generated £13 in increased productivity. I’m working with the TUC to see how we can replace it in the North of Tyne.

Everyone needs the opportunity to retrain throughout their life. We’re embedding this principle into the North of Tyne adult education programme. We’re only responsible for a small part of the skills landscape, and that was only devolved in August last year. But we’ve already enabled nearly ten thousand adults to pursue a new career and expand their horizons.

There is a difference between training and education. Training prepares you for a specific set of tasks, but education develops your critical thinking and ability to adapt. We made a big mistake in this country by charging for university education. Britain stands at a crossroads. We can allow millions of our citizens to struggle to find skilled work.

Or we can invest in lifelong skills and education so everyone can find a good job whatever their stage of life.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12.4.21

When The Boat Comes In

I just about remember the TV show ‘When the Boat Comes In’. It was set in the fictional town of Gallowshields in the North East. If you’ve seen it even once, you’ll remember the theme tune, “Thou shalt have a fishy, on a little dishy, thou shalt have a fishy when the boat comes in.

”It’s sung by Alex Glasgow – who also wrote and sang ‘The Socialist ABC’ with its wonderful sardonic ending. ‘Dance To Thy Daddy’ is based on old Geordie folk song, and predates the chapbook “Songs of the Bards of the Tyne” from 1850. We’ve been fishing from the Tyne for a long, long time.

The origins of North Shields Fish Quay date back to 1225 and Tynemouth Monastery. It was a natural safe anchorage, where the Pow Burn flowed into the Tyne. Today it’s the heart of our fishing industry and England’s biggest prawn port.

The central harbour is known as the Gut, and the Pow Burn still flows into it, albeit through a culvert nowadays. The concrete jetty protects the fishing boats from weather and waves, and the strong tidal currents. Boats moor up at the landing quays and unload their catch. Close by is the fresh fish market, and the processing plants, fish shops and restaurants.

The Fish Quay attracts visitors all year round to eat, drink and take in the heritage of the place. There are beautiful outdoor areas to spend time and enjoy. It’s a unique and valuable part of North Tyneside and is a real celebration of local trade.

You could set up a fish restaurant anywhere, and people do. But it’s the Fish Quay that provides the anchor (see what I did there?) for all these other local businesses to flourish. In a global world of corporate fast food, local character should be cherished.

But the Jetty needs repairing. This part of the harbour has been closed for access since November 2017. The harbour is still in use, but if the jetty goes altogether, we’ll lose our fishing industry.

Which is why the North of Tyne is co-funding the rebuilding of the jetty. This will protect 56 local businesses that support over 300 jobs. I’ve been working with Norma Redfearn at North Tyneside Council on a whole raft of investments.

The North Shields ferry landing is being moved to the Fish Quay. This will integrate local transport links, and strengthen the local businesses.

We’ve provided funding to North Tyneside Council to help with the regeneration of North Shields Town Centre. The North Shields Masterplan is a hugely ambitious piece of work to build hundreds of new homes, regenerate derelict land, and protect our fishing industry while improving the local transport, and the look, leisure and economy of the area.

The North East’s heritage is one of heavy industry and heavy work. Unfortunately that has left heavily contaminated land in its wake. In North Tyneside, we’re using our Brownfield Housing Fund to remediate old industrial land in places like North Shields. And, as you’d expect from a region with a rich seam of coalmining history, there’s a lot of old coal workings underneath our feet. We’re using our Brownfield Housing Fund to grout coal seams to ensure that development that takes place above is safe and secure.

But what are we helping to develop? Norma is the North of Tyne cabinet member for Housing and Land. We have designed our Brownfield Housing Fund programme to reflect the wide variety of housing needs in the area. It’s not just more homes we need. We need affordable council housing available for social rent. We need affordable properties for first time homeowners. We need new rented sector properties for young professionals to make sure we have somewhere for our young graduates to live. And we’re co-funding major regeneration works to the public spaces to make the area somewhere people want to live, work and socialise.

It’s great to be building for the future whilst protecting our heritage. These industries defined our culture. And when it comes to locally sourced food, we need to protect it. Even if future generations haven’t watched When the Boat Comes In.

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5.4.21

My Friend Nigel Todd

I have a packet of Northumberland Wildflower Seeds given to me by Nigel Todd. The mix contains flowers that will thrive in harmony with our local ecosystem. It speaks to his ecological sensitivity and profound sense of place.

High on the wall of Newcastle’s Stowell Street is a stone carving of a sheaf of wheat, a spade and a sickle. “Labor and wait” reads the motto. It’s on the side of the old Co-operative warehouse. “It’s a reminder,” Nigel told me, “that prosperity is about long term sustainability.” The fruits of our labour would take time, and hard graft.

His sudden death this weekend has opened a void in my heart. I can only begin to imagine what his family must be feeling.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. Nigel’s work in Wingrove and Arthur’s Hill was about building that new world. Here and now. In the mess and madness of the old. And he was both a genius and an expert in what he did.

Where others would rail at injustice, Nigel acted. He had little patience for vainglorious committee meetings, and once remarked quietly, “we’re just actors in a play that has neither audience nor script.”

He was Chair of the Co-operative College. This was never about co-operatives in the abstract. His home was part of a housing cooperative. He was the driving force behind Greening Wingrove , a community cooperative, owned and run by the people who live there.

The Bike Garden and the events in Nuns Moor Park are part of that new world. Nigel had been working with the team at the North of Tyne, on our sustainable funding for communities to tackle climate change and food poverty. Everything from vertical veg growing to generation of clean community energy was in the mix.

Tommy Tankie, his topiary steam train sculpted from privet, brightened up the terraced street right outside his home. Talking about it would raise that characteristic smile of warmth and sparkle of gentle subversion in his eyes.

Nigel served his community as a Newcastle City Councillor since 1980. I asked his advice before I became a councillor. “I’ve always taken the approach,” he told me, “that a councillor should not be a cheerleader for the council out in the community, but a shop-steward for the community inside the council.” I hope the Labour Party honours Nigel’s commitment to democracy by allowing local members to select their candidate for May’s elections.

He held a total belief in shared humanity across race, gender and ethnicity. Greening Wingrove uses the “Rainbow Ward” logo as a symbol of its diversity. He campaigned for international justice, and visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and educational trips to Auschwitz.

His daughter Selina wrote that “like most children in the so-called post-war ‘golden age’ of social mobility, Nigel failed his eleven-plus examination and attended a secondary modern school until the age of fifteen.” And owed his education to the Labour movement. “In his late teens he became a clerk for the Workers Educational Association, an adult education organization founded by trade unionists and socialists in 1903. The WEA sent him to Ruskin College, a trade union-funded adult education college in Oxford, where he met my mother.”

A historian and adult educator by profession, he published three books. For him, education was about enrichment. It was history from below – not the kings and queens, but the ordinary heroes on the front line.

In Excited Times is about Tyneside’s struggles against the Blackshirts and British Fascism. Indeed I first met Nigel thirty-odd years ago as part of TWAFA – the anti-fascist movement. At that time there was a spate of violent attacks on anti-racist campaigners from organised fascist groups. I remember teaching Nigel some self-defence techniques. It’s fair to say his talents lay in other forms of struggle.

He was a gifted storyteller. He had that gentle, “gather round and listen” voice, and an air of infectious calm. Nigel never sought glory or recognition. But he was a legend and a giant. With wise counsel and subtle wit he was mentor to so many.

“He was just so calm, all the time. I always found that remarkable and so unusual. He was one of the first people to welcome us into politics and I think nearly every socialist would be able to say the same.”

Nigel spent his life planting seeds, and watching them bloom.

(First published in The Chornicle and The Journal on 29th March 2021)

What Have The Unions Ever Done For Us

When I was a ward councillor for Monument – Newcastle City Centre – our police liaison officers showed exemplary sensitivity and emotional intelligence when dealing with challenging members of the public. We know, though, that any organisation can have bad individuals in it – serving police officer Wayne Couzens has been charged with the murder of Sarah Everard.

That’s the age-old question, asked by the Roman satirist Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – roughly translated as “who will police the police?”

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s response is that she shall police herself. The Crime Bill going through Parliament gives her the power to make new laws without new acts of Parliament, and decide what should constitute illegal protest.

The legislation will make “serious annoyance” illegal. A judge will be able to jail a person for up to 10 years. A police officer will be given powers to take “such conditions as appear necessary” to that officer “to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation.

”Did you notice the word “impact” snuck in there? What the hell is the point of a protest that has no impact? “Down with this sort of thing,” and “Careful now” will be the only actions allowed. The legislation should be renamed the Father Ted Bill.

It took until 2012 for the Hillsborough families to get justice for the 1989 tragedy. For years, senior police officers and the sitting government covered up the facts, lied, and shifted the blame. Just seven miles down the road is Orgreave,a site of another police cover up blamed on the victims, with the collusion of hostile elements of the media. I bet many people reading are still influenced by the early media propaganda – that somehow Liverpool fans were to blame for Hillsborough, or miners for the injuries at Orgreave.

In their 2019 campaign, the Conservatives included a plan to outlaw people withdrawing their labour in protest over their pay or working conditions. It used the example of transport, because it’s a key service. There are around 1.5 million transport workers in the UK’s 32 million strong workforce. But most workers could be categorised essential under such a law. Health workers, education employees, refuse workers, retail workers, delivery staff, postal and telecomms. The right to withdraw your labour – to strike – is a foundation stone of a free society. There’s a name for that, it’s called forced labour.

Trade unions were only decriminalised in 1875. They were tied up with reforms to voting rights. For centuries, working people who didn’t own land could not vote. Because you didn’t own part of the country, ran the argument, you got no say in its future. Today most people don’t get a vote on how their workplace is run – because they don’t own part of it. Despite the fact that it’s their skill, time and energy that make the organisation function. Enlightened employers know that engaging their workers benefits everyone – staff, owners and customers. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, said the anti-trade union laws had lowered workers wages across the economy.

The real trick that’s been played on the British people is this idea that Trade Unions are separate from working people. To paraphrase Monty Python, “what have trade unions ever done for us?”

For a start, unions stopped child labour. Unionised workplaces are safer, with 50% fewer accidents. Every year unions train 10,000 safety reps. Union members earn, on average, 12.5 per cent more than non-members. They have better job security, and stay in their jobs for an average of five years longer than non-members. Unionised workplaces have higher productivity and fewer industrial tribunals.

Apart from that, though, trade unions have only gained us paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, equal pay legislation, pensions, and workplace anti-discrimination laws. Oh, and the weekend. It was unions that fought for a five day working week.

And, of course, furlough was a result of unions negotiating with the government. We’ve all benefited by keeping the economy afloat.

The good news is that trade union membership is rising – with a net increase of 200,000 over the past three years. If you want to join a union, go to www.tuc.org.uk/joinunion.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.3.21

Investment with Forsight

In 1929 the Roaring Twenties plummeted to earth with the Wall Street Crash. Its global aftermath caused mass unemployment and eventually a collapse of democracy across Europe, the rise of the Nazis, and genocide.

The response to the Wall Street crash in both the US and Britain was to cut public spending. Austerity didn’t work then, and it didn’t work in the 2010’s either. It’s a mistake to think of a country as a person. If one person maintains his income, but spends less, he can reduce his debts. But across a whole country, one person’s spending is another person’s income. Cutting public spending cuts our collective income, along with the foundations of our health and education.

In 1932 the American people voted out Herbert Hoover’s austerity policies and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his New Deal. The US government invested in public works – home building, dam construction, transport infrastructure. They introduced a welfare system to support people. With money in their pockets, people spent more, and commerce recovered.

Public works were only half of the New Deal. The US introduced laws to strengthen trade unions. There was an explicit recognition that empowering workers to stand up for their economic interests serves the common good.

In 1932-3, the US passed the Glass-Steagall Acts – regulation that stopped excessive speculation by banks. The global financial system was broadly stable the rest of the century. In 1999, under pressure from rich lobbyists, the US Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Acts. In 8 short years we saw the 2007 subprime crisis and the global financial crash. If financial speculators can make more money gambling than investing in productive assets, we all suffer.

Post-Covid Britain faces two crises: poverty and the climate emergency.

Even before Covid, life expectancy was falling in parts of the North East. Many families in work are unable to pay the bills. Thousands of our people can’t eat without support from food banks. Under Covid, economic inequality has risen – many are deep in debt, and unemployment is rising. Poverty causes long term scarring to the life chances of our kids.

In November, the UK will host COP26, the global climate summit, to review the targets set in Paris in 2016. Even if all countries stick to their agreed targets, we’ll see a global temperature rise of over 3 degrees C. Higher temperatures mean higher humidity.

When you cover a thermometer bulb in wet cloths, and it still reaches 35 degrees C, it means it’s too hot for humans to sweat and cool down, even in the shade. Fans don’t help – the air is too humid. Without air conditioning, people die within hours.

This will affect around half the world’s population. India, China, the Mediterranean, and large parts of the US and Latin America. That means it will affect us too: our economy is global. And I don’t want my kids inheriting a world where 3 billion people have been made homeless.

It’s time for a Green New Deal. Let’s build a million low-carbon homes. Let’s build a net-zero public transport system, that’s cheap, safe and convenient. Let’s retrofit our buildings to save energy and save money. Let’s create a clean, cheap renewable energy grid. And while we’re on, let’s invest in education and training so people can get these jobs, and in sport, arts and entertainment so we can all enjoy ourselves on our days off.

And in parallel to the Glass-Steagall Acts, we need to outlaw exploitative working conditions and phase out high-carbon technologies. Good employers and responsible firms need to be protected from those who undercut them with poverty wages or polluting business models.

We’ve got a plan for this in the North East. It needs £2.8 billion of public investment. It will create 55,000 good jobs. A person on average salary pays over £15,000 a year in tax, once you include national insurance and VAT. So those 55,000 jobs will earn the government £825 million a year. The plan pays for itself in under four years.

So that’s the cost of doing it. What’s the cost of not doing it? The more we invest with foresight, the less we will regret in hindsight.

Published Originally in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 15.3.21

Make Decisions about our Region, in our Region

As a political insider, not much in politics shocks me. But I was astounded to hear the Chancellor say, the “Budget is not the time to set detailed fiscal rules, with precise targets and dates to achieve them by.” WTF? That’s exactly what a budget’s for.

My first priority is to deliver for the people of the North of Tyne. That requires finding the win-win with all partners, including central government. I take a “hate the sin, love the sinner” attitude – by pointing out better alternatives. Cheap shots and personal attacks help no one.

But could you imagine a corporate finance director proposing a budget and saying, “This budget is not intended to include precise facts or timescales”? If it’s not the Chancellor’s job to be on top of the public finances, then whose is it?

Mr Sunak’s budget has drawn criticism from across the spectrum. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says tax and spending plans don’t add up, and his plans don’t look deliverable. Thatcherite think tank the Centre for Policy Studies says it won’t create long term growth. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (not known to be a hotbed of revolutionaries) says it has a big hole where the creation of green jobs should have been. I say keyworkers need a pay rise, not a tax rise.

Pretty much every second paragraph in that speech mentioned ‘levelling up’. But there was nothing to level up Tyneside, or Wearside, or Northumberland. The people of Blyth Valley must feel doubly let down. It’s the Inverse Care Law of politics – the more a government talks about something, the less it actually does.

Last summer, the government asked me to develop an economic recovery plan. It was a real collaboration between all seven of our local authorities, local businesses, our universities, and combined authorities north and south of the Tyne.

It’s a costed plan to create 55,000 jobs. Skilled, well-paid jobs in high-tech and green industries, with the training programmes so local people can fill these jobs. We submitted it as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review in the Autumn. They cancelled that. They said it would inform the budget, but they’ve ignored it again.

These jobs would be stimulating and well-paid. The extra spending power would boost our wider economy. The payroll taxes alone (PAYE, employee’s and employer’s national insurance) would pay for the plan in just a few years. I have to ask: why doesn’t the Chancellor want to create those 55,000 jobs in the North East?

Instead we’re on the same merry-go-round we’ve been on for the past forty years. Governments announce “initiatives” and “funds” that are available to the whole country, and fail to address the needs of our region.

Local Authorities and Combined Authorities have to bid to get the funds they need to deliver essential services like transport improvements. It costs a fortune and takes ages. If you do win, the money has to be spent in a disjointed hurry without any strategic coherence.

When we were asked to submit the recovery plan last year, it finally looked like the government recognised the importance of the role of Combined Authorities. We’re the only organisations who can join everything up – transport, economic recovery, housing, carbon reduction, and skills. We can focus on what works here, not the one-size-fits-all that comes out of Whitehall and Westminster.

Whenever governments (not just this one) spot a problem, their knee-jerk reaction is to set up another Commission or quango to fix it. It takes months to go through each stage. Define the remit. Recruit the staff. Sign-off the systems, governance and assurance frameworks. As Sir Humphrey said, “Months of fruitful work!”

Mayoral Combined Authorities are already here. Already set up. Already fully functional and delivering thousands of real jobs. But you wouldn’t know that from the Chancellor’s speech.

We can and we will be submitting bids. But this Budget is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks devolution and economic recovery can be separated. Until decisions about our region are made in our region, we’ll always be waiting for the crumbs from the king’s table.

I had low expectations of this Budget, and the Chancellor failed to meet them.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.3.21

Build Back Fairer

“Build Back Better” has become the mantra. Good as far as it goes, but unless we build back fairer we’re back to the status quo. High levels of economic inequality and deprivation are damaging to health and wellbeing. The core objective must be providing good jobs.

Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You was a superb swipe at zero-hours Britain. The main character, Ricky, is persuaded by his mate to take on what looks like a nice little earner, van driving for a delivery company. Except it turns out it’s not a job, but bogus self-employment. He gets no holiday, no pension, no sick pay, and yet doesn’t have the freedom of how to work, or even let his daughter ride in the cab with him.

No such thing as rest breaks, he has to carry an empty plastic bottle with him for when nature calls. His life rapidly descends in to one of unrelenting stress and financial insecurity which has a toxic impact on his wellbeing and his family life. It’s also set in Newcastle, and worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Self-employment can be great. It’s hard work, and can be risky. But you get to be the boss, and you get to keep the profits. I’m right behind small businesses and entrepreneurialism. But the gig-economy is not self-employment. It’s serfdom. Gig-economy workers don’t get to keep the profits.

If you’re on low pay, you have no choice but to work long hours. Nationally, 56% of people in poverty are in a working family. It was 39% twenty years ago. In the North East, 22% of our workers are paid less than the Real Living Wage (£9.50/hr), the pay rate you need to pay your bills without falling into debt or hunger.

Over the past ten years we’ve seen an explosion in the gig economy. Pre-Covid, 1 in 6 UK workers were in insecure employment. There is a direct correlation between insecure work, workplace bullying and health and safety violations. Of course, the rest of us have to pick up the bill for the social consequences of that.

Poor employment contracts are bad for your health. The Good Work Monitor, from the Institute for Future Work, published evidence that lower paid and lower status jobs have increased illness, mortality, and “diseases of despair” – suicide and substance abuse. Our social care workers are particularly vulnerable. Poverty wages and no sick pay means they’re too poor to stay safe.

There is an alternative. Last week I spoke at an event organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Work. Alongside my Metro Mayor colleague Andy Burnham and Professor Sir Michael Marmot, the public health guru.

I highlighted our work in the North of Tyne on our Good Work Pledge. It underpins all of the 3,200 jobs we’re on target to create. It was great to get the thumbs up for the Good Work Pledge from Sir Michael. We’re meeting with his team to explore what more we can do to tackle the health inequality in our region

.Criticising bad business practices is not anti-business any more than criticising dangerous drivers is anti-driving. Calling for better employment practices is pro-business. Our Good Work Pledge was developed with the North East Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, and the British Confederation of Industry. They hate bad employment – and want to see good employers rewarded. If you’re an employer, and you look after your staff, please get in touch if you want to sign up. There’s a “low-admin” route for small businesses. It’s all on the North of Tyne website.

In the crusade to provide good work, stamping out insecure employment is crucial. A word of thanks therefore to the Uber drivers. Their years-long fight to be classed as workers and not self-employed “partners” was finally ruled on by the supreme court a fortnight ago. The court’s unanimous decision was that Uber drivers were “workers” entitled to basic rights including the minimum wage and statutory holidays.

This landmark ruling is another step towards making the exploitation of gig economy workers like Ricky a thing of the past.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 1.3.21

Reimagine How to Connect

“Shall we meet online or in real life?” This increasingly common question speaks volumes. No matter how good your internet connection or webcam is, it’s still not the same. Maybe The Matrix has raised our expectations.

Workers in the cultural sector have again shown their creativity and resilience. Online shows, workshops, musical performances from bedrooms. Innovative styles like the self-selecting ’front row’ of an online comedy gig. It gives the comedian real interaction with at least some of the audience. There are also advantages in inclusivity for people who find it difficult physically getting to events. They might live out in the sticks, or have limited mobility

.Some forms of entertainment translate better than others. The connection with the crowd isn’t there online. Singing the Blaydon Races or Wise Men Say in front of your living room telly is nothing like adding your voice to thousands of fellow fans. Part of the human condition is enjoying being together. Well, some of the time.

Last week I had a meeting with Minister Caroline Dinenage and Lord Neil Mendoza to discuss cultural recovery and levelling up. The Cultural Levelling Up Fund has given a lifeline to some of our local venues like Alphabetti, Liberdaje, and the Tyne Theatre and Opera House. But there is a long way to go. It was great to hear Lord Mendoza say he’d take up the challenge to show culture can contribute to levelling up. I’ll continue to push.

Before becoming Mayor I was Councillor for Monument ward which covers Newcastle City Centre. I’d often meet with businesses to discuss the future of the City Centre. The trend of working from home and shopping online was already happening. Like King Canute (or is it Cnut – need to be careful with that spelling!), we can’t hold back the tide. The trickle has become a torrent.

Next week I’m meeting Minister Paul Scully about re-opening cities. The government want to discuss how to get people back into offices and shops. We need to be thinking further ahead than that. Shops and office space are going to change. We’ve already seen some big names from the high street disappear. Reimagining the future of Britain’s city centres is now urgent.

In Newcastle we have two universities, a football stadium and a hospital to build a vision around. And people will always want a nexus of pubs, bars and clubs to socialise in. The transport network is focused on city centres, so they’re easy to reach. Cultural venues are well placed there to take advantage of the transport links and plug into the social scene.

How should we reimagine our city centre? A focus on public spaces so people can gather in a pleasant environment has to be part of it. More green spaces that show off the beautiful architecture. Flexible meeting rooms for when ‘working-from-homers’ need to meet in person. Spaces for community groups to convene. My kids love meeting their mates to play games. I’d be interested in hearing your ideas, so do get in touch via the North of Tyne website.

Our Citizen’s Assembly starts next week. We’ve been busy making sure all the participants have the kit and skills they need to join in. If they don’t have a computer, we’re lending them a laptop. We’ve worked hard to make sure they come from a diverse range of backgrounds, ages, geographies and also different views on climate change.

One gentleman has been isolating all throughout the pandemic and was thrilled when we got the Zoom connection up and running. He’d never used Zoom before. “I can see you!” He was blown away that we wanted to hear his opinion and is excited about taking part. Many other participants have said how chuffed they are that we’re asking their opinion, saying they’ve never been asked before.

That is the power of connection. Whether in the physical realm or the virtual. Digital may not be real life, but it can make a real difference. We’ve all experienced upheavals and changing patterns of activity over the past year. We need to identify the good bits we want to keep and embrace them

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.2.21

Plaggy Bagging

Snow, -6 degrees C, and I’ve been out sledging with my kids. My younger son, now 13, clad only in a T-shirt and cagoule jacket.

“How are you going to keep warm in that? You’ll freeze!” I told him. “I’m a Geordie,” he replied. He was right too. Maybe it’s the energy of youth, running up and sliding down a bank. I even taught him the age-old art of “plaggy bagging” – using a bin liner as an improvised sledge that you steer by shifting your bodyweight.

Geordies are legendary for hardiness. Venturing out in T-shirts or short skirts when there’s ice on the ground. It’s exaggerated, but based on a grain of truth. The stereotype has taken hold.

The rest of the country knows it’s been snowing because it made the news. There must have been a light dusting of snow in Surrey or Kent. Snow up here is less of a story. Anything up here is less of a story.

We face regional imbalances in pretty much everything.

Last week I met with the Research & Development Minister. R&D leads to innovation, the creation of productive industries, and interesting, well-paid jobs. Without it, there’d be no Covid vaccine, for a start.

London, Oxford, and Cambridge account for 46% of the UK’s public and charitable R&D, but just 21% of the population. And I doubt you’ll be surprised that over 70% of capital investment in research infrastructure between 2007 and 2014 were made in London, the East and South East.

In the North of Tyne, in a relatively short time, we’ve been backing some exciting projects with devolved funding. Like our Advancing Circular Economy project, joint with industry. It develops environmentally sustainable replacements for household products – detergents, for example. It creates high-paid, high-tech jobs in the process.

You may have seen the Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake, where he struggles to apply for jobs online. 53% of our people lack the skills or equipment to access online services. Compared that to 35% in the South East. In the North East only 18% of people are highly engaged internet users. In the South East it’s 49%.

So we’ve partnered with Newcastle’s National Innovation Centre for Data to support digital adoption for 800 North East businesses. And bought £650,000 of kit so disadvantaged school kids can access lessons online.

I had a second Ministerial last week – with a Minister from The Department of Culture, Media and Sport. I spend a lot of my time speaking up for our region. In Culture and the Arts, the North East economy benefits £72 per person. London benefits £311 per person. The good news is the Minister agreed to my proposal for my team to work with Whitehall civil servants to address this.

Community arts funding from the Lottery is £50.40 per person in London. In the rest of England, it’s £21.26. We’re making some progress here too. Our Spacehive is matching North of Tyne money with Lottery funds to get community projects off the ground.

We are paving the way – but if government is serious about levelling up, they need to match warm words with hard cash.

Last week saw the sad news that Mary Wilson died. She co-founded The Supremes, and like the rest of Motown, influenced many British musicians. I remember reading a piece on how The Jam wrote Town Called Malice. Bruce Foxton, the bassist, acknowledged that the bass line closely resembles You Can’t Hurry Love by The Supremes. It’s a link few would make, but it hits you as soon as you listen to both tracks.

Town Called Malice describes a left behind town, something the North East understands all too well. The way the grind of poverty affects relationships and life chances.

The Southern establishment imagines Geordies wearing T-shirts in the snow. They see the whole North as bleating about being hard done to. We are, but that argument has cut no ice for forty years. So I always offer a solution – how investment will empower us to generate wealth here.

Like the song says, “I could go on for hours, and I probably will, but I’d sooner put some joy back in this town called Malice

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 15.2.21

Listen To Those You Disagree With

The act of listening matters. Hearing viewpoints different to your own is an essential part of a healthy political climate. It’s the only route to effective democracy.

So who should politicians listen to first? Billionaires? Newspaper owners? Lobbyists? That’s the list that worries people – that those with influence exercise it unhealthily and selfishly. It’s a legitimate worry.

An underplayed danger is politicians listening to people who stroke their egos. It’s human to enjoy being flattered, and made to feel important. It’s self-affirming to meet people who agree with you.

But here’s the real kicker: only meeting people who don’t give them a hard time. Listening to someone is not the same as agreeing with them. It does mean appreciating that there is a different viewpoint, and trying to understand it. Today’s politics is so febrile – the slightest Twitter slip is pounced upon – that politicians are increasingly controlling about their public image. It’s a vicious circle that motivates the media to try to outflank the spin doctors and minders, and seek out the member of the public who will have a pop.

The best antidote is to not base your self-esteem on your public approval. Denis Healey famously said that politicians require a hinterland. A breadth and depth gained from knowledge and pursuits outside of politics. Literary, artistic, scientific, sporting. And family, of course. I have time marked out when I switch off my phone, and spend it with my kids. It’s too easy to become a workaholic in this job.

Listening isn’t just for politicians. We’d all be wiser to weigh evidence before grandstanding. Some people spend their lives on transmit. Social media gives a platform to arm-chair experts, with evidence-free opinions on everything from the biomedical science of vaccination to the mechanics of international trade. In a previous era, we’d hear these people across the pub, five pints the worse for wear.

I meet with organised interest groups all the time: big business, small business, trade unions, transport user groups, human rights campaigners, Citizens UK, local business forums, religious leaders, and so on. Their specialist knowledge is valuable. Discussion allows us to drill down behind the strap-lines and find workable solutions.

Most interesting, though, are when I meet people who have no specific agenda. Last week I met 6th formers online, from schools across North Tyneside. They spoke of the impact lockdown is having on their lives. How they are making their career choices – or deliberately not making choices yet. Their hopes to not have to move away from the North East to have good job prospects. The economic effects on their family when parents lose their jobs. The changes they want to see in the world.

These kinds of insights are invaluable. After all, young people are the experts in understanding young people. A core aim of all our work on skills and job creation is to make sure that our young people can have a prosperous and stable future in the North East and don’t have to head to London to have a career.

The NHS Patient Charter introduced in 2015 is based on the core NHS principal of “No decision about me without me”. This means listening and consulting directly with patients in all decision making about their treatment.

Focus groups and the advice of marketing gurus are no substitute for real engagement with real people. Especially those historically marginalised, such as our Red Wall constituencies. Poverty is an increasing problem in our region. The impact of Covid will be severe.

Poor families are rarely listened to or given a voice. That’s why we are working with the Poverty Truth Network to establish a Poverty Truth Commission for North of Tyne.

Fair pay and secure, unionised jobs are the foundation for dealing with poverty. But the individual causes and consequences of poverty are engulfed in myth and prejudice. Listening to lived experience will help us develop the interventions that will make a practical difference.

Putting listening into practice this way is well worth the effort. It makes democracy work

.Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.2.21

Retrofitting is a short sighted waste of money

Did you know the 2nd February is Groundhog Day?   

At this very moment houses are being built which will need to be retrofitted.  Retrofitting means installing something later which would have been easier and cheaper to include it when it was built.  

This will cost about £20,000 per house.  Who will pay? Probably the homeowner.  How much would it have cost if it was built into the house? About £5,000.  

So why would any government let something so obviously ridiculous happen? Well, let me tell you a story.

Back in 2006, when people trusted banks and you could go to the cinema, there was a Labour government.  They announced that all new homes would be “zero carbon” within 10 years.  The 10-year phasing allowed industry to adapt.  By 2016, all new homes would generate as much energy on-site as they used.  With a guaranteed market and a 10 year lead-in companies could invest in developing technologies.  Technologies would become cheaper and more efficient.  We’d have a skilled workforce and a bright future of green jobs for young people.  We’d be world leaders in green technology innovation.  

In 2015 the Conservative government scrapped these planswith only 6 months’ notice.  The official reason given in the government report was to “reduce net regulation on housebuilders”.  In other words, lobbying behind closed doors.  Good for the housebuilders’ shareholders.  Bad for the people buying the houses, their heating bills, the environment, and everyone who lives on planet Earth.  

814,000 new homes have been completed in the last three years.  All will need retrofitting.  

Government are talking about green homes once again.  After all, the problem wasn’t going to go away.  It certainly feels like Groundhog Day.  

Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for housing, released a Planning White paper in August 2020.  It said that from 2025, they “expect new homes to produce 75-80% lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels.  These homes will be ‘zero carbon ready’”.  

The obvious question is why ‘zero carbon ready’?  Why not zero carbon? I asked him directly on a zoom call.  He said he’d consider it.  We’ve lost nine years and wasted 814,000 opportunities to have a zero-carbon housing stock.  By 2025 we need to be more that ‘ready’.  

The government has a target of 300,000 new homes a year.  So by 2025 that’s another 1,200,000 homes to retrofit.  

If you’ve bought a new build since 2016, or buy one in the next few years, these decisions are literally costing you money.  About £15,000 in fact.

Existing homes need retrofitting too.  The UK’s housing stock is the oldest in Europe.  We have low levels of construction and demolition.   Around 70-80% of our buildings will still be used in 2050.  Retrofit is looming large.  

At the Combined Authority we’re developing our £10 million Green New Deal Fund to help organisations adapt to green energy.  This is just a drop in the warming ocean though.  Retrofitting everyone’s home will cost £billions.  

In almost all cases it’s cheaper and more energy-effective to retrofit old homes than knock them down and start again.  Our homes vary from Tyneside flats to Georgian townhouses, high rises and homes with gardens.  The technical challenge is complex.  

Retrofitting means insulating walls (internally or externally), fitting air-tight window frames with double or triple glazing, and improving the efficiency of electrical and heating appliances.  It could mean solar panels, and air- or ground-source heat pumps. Businesses tell me what they need most is a consistent pipeline of work.  Then they can invest in equipment, train people up and build capacity.    

The government introduced a £2 billion Green Home Grants scheme.  You’d think it’s a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, it is in chaos.  Applications take ages, vouchers are rejected and companies are not being paid.  Why?  Because instead of giving it to UK public servants with decades of experience, it was outsourced…to a private firm in Georgia, USA.  So don’t try contacting them during UK office hours, they’re in a different time zone.

We need to create jobs and boost our economy, we need to reduce emissions.  But you can’t outsource leadership.  Government must act now.  

Originally Published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 1.1.21


Light at The End of The Tunnel ?

 Do you remember when you were a kid, and you’d ask your Mam or Dad for something, and they’d say, “We’ll see” – which is parent speak for “No chance.” Or they’d say “We’ll see what Santa brings” which is code for “Hopefully you’ll have forgotten by then”.

As a child, next Christmas was always in the far distant future. Last Christmas was just a vague memory. As you get older, your perception of time changes. And since we went into the first lockdown last March, time seems to be behaving very strangely indeed.

Normally, we structure our perception of time around events. Birthday parties and anniversaries. Kids off school. Getting away on holiday. Without these landmarks, we feel in a perpetual no-man’s land. Like we’re stuck in that limbo time between Christmas and New Year, where you have no idea what day it is, but you know it’s fine to eat chocolates for breakfast.

With the days running into each other, and no highlights to look forward to, it’s tempting to watch one of those 24 hour news channels. Even while you’re doing it, you know it’s a mistake – there’s just so much doom and gloom. Since I became a politician I’ve stopped watching rolling news – it’s too superficial. I imagine it’s what it must feel like when a meteorologist is asked “will it rain next weekend?” and is expected to give a “yes or no” answer.

To get your attention, the media keep using the term ‘unprecedented’, particularly about Covid-19. I think we’ve worked out it’s unprecedented, we don’t need to be told. The global media have had a field day with all the unprecedented events caused by the unprecedented President. The holder of the highest office on the planet was – let’s tell the truth here – a pathological liar. Who advocated white supremacy, sexually assaulting women, and injecting bleach into your lungs as a Covid treatment. His administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and let Covid run rampant. Not to mention the corruption, inciting violence and the fantasist claim that he’d won a landslide in the election. All unprecedented, but it’s noticeable how quickly people just came to adapt to it.

Unprecedented can describe good news, too. Kamala Harris becoming the United States’ first female Vice President, the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history, and the first African American and South Asian American Vice President. I caught Joe Biden’s inauguration speech. He’s not a young man, and Kamala Harris might be the first woman president of the US. For me, the highlight of that speech was undoubtedly Bernie Saunders’ unprecedented mittens, and all the memes they’ve spawned.

In times like this, it’s easy to lose perspective. Just as Trump’s abuse and lies were not robustly challenged by the US media, we’re seeing a numbing of UK news responses.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of police records were accidentally wiped from the police database. Home Secretary Priti Patel ’s was asked whether any of the data had been permanently lost. I was staggered when she answered to the effect, “Dunno mate.” And the Prime Minister couldn’t tell the House of Commons how many cases are affected by the lost data. In any previous era this would be a government defining story. Now it’s submerged in mix of speculation, guesswork and urban legend that passes for Britain’s public debate. No wonder people doubt the accuracy of information coming from the Government.

One positive unprecedented event was the speed of the vaccine development. It is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to predict what will happen with the virus. And how quickly – or carefully – we can come out of lockdown.

Despite the Government’s bizzare decision to cut the number of vaccines for the North East because we’re too successful at delivering it, the most vulnerable groups are being vaccinated. NHS staff and volunteers are working tirelessly. Take-up rates are positive too: in the North East and Yorkshire, 715,903 people have had their first dose, and 71,508 have had both doses.

It is the tiniest spark of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Let’s focus on that little spark and watch it grow.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25.1.21

Feed the Children

You’ll have seen photos of the meagre rations meant to feed schoolchildren. You might have read that corporate CEO pay has rocketed to 120 times that of their average worker. You’re probably aware that people are volunteering to help with Covid jabs. What links them all?

Some cheese slices, tin of beans, loaf of bread a little bit of veg and not much else is supposed to provide ten meals. Meant to come to £30 worth of food. Even at retail prices, it’s about £5.22. The real scrooge part was seeing that penne pasta had been removed from its original packaging and doled out in little plastic bags. How tight is that? Even at supermarket prices, it only costs £1 for a kilo of brand-name pasta.

The companies get an administration fee and packaging and shipping fee. The parcels are supposed to contain £15 worth of food per child per week.

Let’s not forget free school meals are taken up by kids of all ages. My eldest son is 14 now. That food parcel wouldn’t last him ten minutes, never mind ten meals. Like most teenage boys, he’d trough the lot in one go.

Chartwells is the corporate profiteer in this case. Owned British catering giant the Compass Group, they won’t be paying supermarket prices for food. Last year they posted a profit of £1.2billion. Their chairman was Paul Walsh, a multi-millionaire Tory party donor and member of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group.

And let’s not fall for the idea that their profit is paying for the free school meals. Corporation tax contributes only 6% of UK tax revenues. Payroll taxes and indirect taxes (VAT, fuel, etc) raise most of our public expenditure. Tax comes out of the pockets of ordinary citizens, and into the pockets of the mega-rich.

On the subject of wealth inequality, “High Pay Day” was January 6th this year. The day when the typical FTSE 100 chief executive has already been paid what the average worker gets for the whole year. After just 34 hours under their belt.

The pay gap between executives and workers is particularly acute in the retail sector. Ocado, the online supermarket, paid chief executive Tim Steiner £57.8 million last year, that’s 2,605 times the £22,500 Ocado’s delivery staff get on average. It’s those staff who are doing the work, generating the profits. Meanwhile, Mr Steiner paid £50,000 to the Conservative Party. How long would it take those delivery drivers to save up £50,000?

It’s easy to be outraged when kids have their food stolen by profiteers. There’s noticeably less outrage that the rich are getting richer while real wages fall and unemployment rises. And hardly anyone is asking why we’re not paying people for giving life-saving vaccines in a pandemic.

It’s great when people volunteer – I encourage it. Less great is the shortage of medical staff caused by government raiding their pensions to pay for the banking crisis the billionaires never paid for. In fact, it’s egregious that many of these volunteers are suffering a pay freeze – a real terms pay cut. Yet £22 billion was thrown at conglomerates with track record of failure to run a failed test & trace system. Funny that it was a Tory MP’s wife who got the gig.

No one is connecting these issues because British public debate is banal. It distracts from the real question: who has power? Perhaps you’re okay with that. Or resigned. It’s hard not to become numb when we see homeless people, hungry kids, small businesses folding, public servants burned out from overwork, our elderly relatives dying from Covid in care homes, and our kids accruing debt before they can even afford a deposit for a home.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

There’s not some vast international conspiracy, run by a shadowy Keyser Soze. But there is an establishment that maintains a legal, political and economic system based on property rights. It has been shaped for centuries, with mechanisms to ensure wealth flows from ordinary people to rich people. And it is out of control. Britain is run in the interests of a kleptocracy.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle

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72% of Children in Poverty are from Working Families

Democracy is a powerful idea. Everyone gets an equal say, no matter your background or your wealth. It took a lot of fighting for – the landed nobility did not roll over willingly. Many campaigners were hanged, transported or killed in battle. The events in Washington DC this week show we can’t take it for granted.

Insurrectionists in the Capitol last week waved Confederate flags. The Antebellum South was a democracy – in the sense that it held elections. Of course, women couldn’t vote. And slaves were chattels – property. If you were a woman slave, your children were the legal property of your owner the moment they were born.

Even Ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, had slavery. Unlike the race-based slavery of the Americas, an Athenian slave had more legal protection. Striking a slave was illegal, and could be prosecuted. Killing a slave was punished with the death penalty.

In practice, there was little difference between a poor citizen and fortunate slave. Athenian slaves could run businesses, and give a share of the profits to their owners. Compare that with the modern practice of shareholding.

In Athens there was very little slave trading, and slavery was not hereditary. Debt bondage was a common route into slavery. If you were in debt, you were enslaved to your creditor until you could repay him.

The view that working for wages is akin to slavery dates back to the ancient world.

Said the Roman statesman Cicero, “”the very wage workers receive is a pledge of their slavery”. In today’s Britain, we may have the freedom to choose not to work, but the freedom to starve is no freedom at all. And many who do work still use foodbanks. 72% of children in poverty are from working families.

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass – whose freedom was bought by the people of Newcastle – concluded, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other”. Two and a half centuries on, and wage slavery is still with us.

No discussion of wage slavery can pass up a quotation from Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s best drinking bud. “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence,

however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labour only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.”

There’s the root of the problem. The drive, for the past forty years at least, for a “flexible labour market”, that no government of any party has challenged. I’ve never known any campaigner or trade unionist argue against increasing productivity or profitability. What they argue against is being forced into a marginal existence. Zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment are rife.

The North of Tyne, like many progressive organisations, has a Modern Slavery policy. You have to ask: what is wrong with our world that we even need such a policy?

Slavery today, as in Ancient Athens, is based on debt. Interest is a way of transferring wealth from poor people to rich people.

That’s why I stand in solidarity with the owners of small businesses, who are working their socks off, often to repay interest. They have to take life-changing risks, like putting their house up as collateral. Contrast that with our government who have allowed the three million #excludedUK – small business owners and self-employed – to fall through the gap during this pandemic. No wonder the Prime Minister is famous for saying, “f*ck business”. And it wasn’t “feck”.

The Labour Party has a massive opportunity here. The vast majority of businesses in the UK are precarious small businesses. Not just workers forced into self-employment, like in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. But most small businesses are precarious, and many struggle to get paid on time by corporations.

Anyone who has to keep working to avoid penury is a worker. Even workers who are earning a good living have very little choice but to continue. To quote Fight Club, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.”

As Noam Chomsky says, “representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.”

What does democracy mean to a care worker juggling two jobs on minimum wage who never gets to read her daughter a bed-time story? Or the owner of a small business who is about to go bust because a large corporate customer still hasn’t paid their invoice, 120 days after it was due. Or to parents who are financially secure, but worried about their son leaving university with £60,000 of debt just for getting educated? Not so long ago, education was seen as a public good.

Whole swathes of essential services and utilities are governed not by us, as citizens, but by the needs of distant shareholders, often based in tax havens. Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, said, “Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”

You got to vote for a government who’ve just decided that all those council keyworkers aren’t allowed a pay rise to match inflation. But you aren’t allowed a vote on whether the CEO of Ocado is worth his £58 million pay packet. The only way you get to vote on that, is to be rich and own enough shares.

The American philosopher of pragmatism, John Dewey, said that until “industrial feudalism” is replaced by “industrial democracy”, politics will be “the shadow cast on society by big business.”

Donald Trump’s climate change denying campaign was funded by fossil fuel companies. Jeremy Corbyn faced relentless assault from the British press, eighty percent of which is owned by a handful of billionaire tax-exiles who don’t live in Britain.

Economic democracy is a simple idea. It means the people who do the work, get paid for the work. And profits get reinvested, not extracted for financial bubbles like share buybacks.

That means more local business. A level playing field for small businesses. More cooperatives and worker owned businesses. And an active role for workers in the management of a company, through the role of trade unions. That means repealing Britain’s anti-democratic trade union laws. It means bringing our public services back into public ownership – democratic ownership, where workers and service users get to shape them. It means ending tax dodging.

But the first thing is to put economic democracy on the agenda. So little of this is ever addressed in public discourse. We argue about the personalities, and judge their media performances. Boris is good because he used three word slogans. Oh hang on, he’s now bad because he keeps U-turning. Meanwhile, the real power of money goes unquestioned.

Expect the guardians of the status quo to object to any debate that seriously threatens their source of power.

As the Brazilian priest Helda Camera said, “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor have no food, they called me a communist.”

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11.1.21

Look after Your Staff and they will Look after You

January, it’s said, is named after the Roman god Janus. He’s depicted having two faces, one looking into the past and the other the future. He’s the overseer of transition and change.

Looking back at January 2020, I doubt even a Roman god could have foreseen the year we actually had.

I’ve been looking back at the column I wrote in the first week of January last year. It had been a busy eight months after being elected. Setting up the new Combined Authority, appointing my team, building relationships and kick-starting the programmes to regenerate and reinvigorate the region’s economy.

We’d just come through a turbulent General Election. Seats in the North that had always been Labour strongholds were lost to the Tories, but I was looking forward to a year where I’d be able to deliver my manifesto pledges.

Then the first lockdown in March happened, and none of us knew what that would mean for the region’s economy. Or the country’s. Or how long it would go on for. Then we had the Tier system, and a second wave of the virus, and then the second lockdown. Now we’ve got a new variant, and probably another national lockdown.

Despite COVID, lockdowns, staff working from home, homeschooling, Zoom, Zoom not working, and “you’re on mute”, we’ve accomplished a huge amount.

When I say ‘we’ this isn’t false modesty, or humblebragging. It’s true that I’m the political face of the Combined Authority, but there’s an engine room of skilled, dedicated people working with me. All of them enthusiastic about championing the region we love.

We’ve demonstrated the success of the Mayoral Combined Authority model. We have programmes in place to deliver 2,732 new jobs, and have safeguarded another 1,782. We’ve successfully handled the devolution of the £23 million Adult Education Budget. And we’re managing the £24m devolved Brownfield Housing Fund, going from announcement to spades in the ground within just six months. Homes and jobs is a solid foundation for recovery.

We’ve been working closely – and effectively – with authorities south of the Tyne. There’s a joint focus on improving transport to the whole of the North East. That followed March’s budget, where the Chancellor announced £4.2 billion for transport funding. We’ll only get our share of that –around £500 million – if the North East’s seven local authorities join in a single Mayoral Combined Authority. The experiences of the pandemic have shown how well the North East can work together. We’ve developed a joint recovery plan that will form the basis of negotiations with Government.

The epidemic did delay our plans for the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change, but face-to-face meetings will be replaced with Zoom. This week, letters will be sent out to randomly selected residents of North Tyneside, Northumberland and Newcastle. They’ll be asked to take part in the Assembly and consider the question ‘What should we do in the region to address climate change and its causes fairly, effectively and quickly?’ It’s asking what kinds of changes and trade-offs they would support to protect our collective future. We’re looking forward to the work that will come out of it.

Our Green New Deal is rolling out, boosting the offshore wind sector and the low carbon economy. We’ve set up a £5 million innovation fund to create a digital ecosystem for public services and small businesses in the region. We’re continuing to work with our Local Authorities to set up more Community Hubs. I was proud to announce that the Combined Authority was an accredited Living Wage Employer with a zero gender pay gap. We’ve launched our Good Work Pledge, encouraging employers large and small, to look after their staff. The pledge promises job security, progression opportunities, and fair wages to all their employees.

At the end of a long and trying year came some good news. A company called BritishVolt is hoping to open its Gigafactory here, manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles and providing 3,000 jobs. In a pleasing twist of fate, “the world’s cleanest and greenest battery facility” will be built on the site of the old Blyth coal-powered power station.

I’m looking forward to seeing just what we can achieve in 2021. Bring it on.

Originally Published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 4.1.21

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Real Wellbeing Requires Abundant Green and Blue Spaces

The places where we live and the stresses we face constantly change, but the importance of our friendships remain. Living in safe, attractive communities is essential for our wellbeing. Connection to others defines our sense of belonging, our place in the world. It’s not surprising that research shows a strong link between a sense of community and emotional wellbeing.

Before Christmas, the North of Tyne hosted a wellbeing policy workshop. What really matters to quality of life? For too long public policy has focused on remote statistics like GDP and growth rate. We’re in the middle of the worst recession ever. How we rebuild will define our futures.

The Carnegie Trust’s head of policy is a pioneer in this field. She described how striving to hit economic indicators misses the point about the real environment that shapes people’s health, wealth and happiness. The Welsh Government’s commissioner for the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act ran us through their approach. How every policy decision is viewed through the lens of what effect will this have in ten, twenty, fifty years time. This has put long-term sustainability front and centre of policy making. Not just carbon footprints, but the visual quality of the environment; the effect of green spaces on mental health. Good old fashioned happiness.

The obsession with GDP, growth, and the FTSE index leaves a huge majority of people falling through the gaps. Everything is done for some greater good, that few of us seem to share in. The claim that trickle-down works. That “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

In the decade before Covid, UK GDP grew from £1.6 trillion to £2.1 trillion. A 34% increase. In the same period, knife crime increased 42%, rough sleeping increased 169% and foodbank use increased 3900%.

The rising tide is great if you own a yacht. But it leaves the rest of us cold and wet. And some drown.

To quote Lillie Franks, Writer of Wrongs on Twitter

Replacing the words “The Economy” with “rich peoples yacht money”

How can we respond to COVID without sacrificing rich peoples yacht money ?

-Saving the environment sounds nice but what about rich peoples yacht money

-Medicare for all would destroy rich peoples yacht money

We’ve put inclusive economy at the heart of our approach. The new jobs we’re creating have to be good jobs. Paid enough to live on, with job security, where mental health is taken seriously. It matches our commitment to community cohesion. Left to the market, there would be nowhere we could meet that doesn’t involve spending money.

Real wellbeing requires abundant green and blue spaces, and safe spaces to interact with our neighbours. Communities need a vibrant centre, a focus for people of all ages to participate in education, economic and cultural life. We’re laying some of the groundwork with our £1.5 million Community Hubs project.

There’s a real wealth of talent and goodwill in our communities. With Crowdfund North of Tyne, we’re giving this a bit of a nudge to encourage people. The range of projects getting community buy-in has been fantastic. Five have been selected for funding from the first funding cycle.

The community beekeeping project will be based at the Meadow Well Connected centre in North Shields. Set up by a local man, it will help people to learn the basics of beekeeping without needing to fork out for all the kit. There’s funding to place ten beehives at the centre. It’ll be run intergenerationally, with kids, parents and grandparents, and include people with disabilities. What a great way to bring people together, while also providing a pollination service to local gardens and allotments. With honey at the end of it!

Sustainability means tackling the climate crisis. But it also means placing people at the centre of policy, ahead of abstract economic indicators. The 2009 book, the Spirit Level, documents the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

For every measure of health or social problems, the more unequal a country is, the worse the problems are. Whether a country is rich or poor overall, it is inequality that increases physical ill health, mental ill health, drug abuse, imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child abuse.

One homeless person sleeping rough diminishes us all. One family unable to feed their children makes all of our lives worse. There was so much to fix even before this pandemic hit.

An end to inequality would benefit us all.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28.12.20

Have a Safe and Peaceful Christmas

2020 has definitely been a challenge and made us all see life in a new way. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make us realise that simply spending time with our family is the most important thing.

I know many people will find it tough not seeing their families this Christmas. Like many, my family decided not to spend Christmas together this year, even before the latest announcement. It’s a hard decision but the right one for us. Everyone’s situation is different and you have to do what is right for you. There aren’t many bonuses but one has got to be not being able to fall out over Trivial Pursuit.

The fantastic thing about family Christmas traditions is that they develop over time. They morph as families change and new people are added. As kids grow from toddlers to teenagers. They can seem so normal to people brought up with it and only exposed when a new partner or friend observes it for the first time. And then you are outed as the crazy people who open their presents AFTER Christmas lunch!

As the social side of Christmas is somewhat limited this year, I’m sure food will be centre stage for many. It definitely will be for me and my family. However, some people do not have that option. There are some unbelievable facts about the prevalence of low wages. Low wages make families have to choose between heating and eating. The New Economics Foundation found that by next April a third of the UK population will be living on an income with which they can’t afford the basics for a decent standard of living. This inequality is causing food poverty. The richest 10% of households in Great Britain hold 44% of wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%. In the sixth richest national it is just not acceptable.

I’ll be watching the programme tonight following Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign. He’s doing a cracking job but it’s a sad indictment on this country that it’s taken a footballer to step in to help address this problem. It’s shameful that 320 Conservative MPs voted to against feeding kids over school holidays. That Jacob Rees Mogg complained about UNICEF feeding hungry British children.

Imagine if the spacemen who came travelling in Chris de Burgh’s song saw the queuing at food banks. I bet he would be baffled at how a prosperous country could let it happen.

This year the North of Tyne Combined Authority chose the West End Food Bank as its charity. The staff have raised an impressive amount of money to donate. They do such a fantastic job of catching and supporting people when they are most in need. A fantastic project that makes me proud to come from the North East.

We’re doing what we can through the North of Tyne Combined Authority by creating good jobs on decent wages. We are supporting people into employment through training and looking at innovative ways to address the underlying causes. I’m not going to stop pushing on this issue until there is zero poverty.

This experience will not leave us and in time may even be a source of pride that we were there and we got through it together.

My youngest son is an aspiring Thespian. His favourite speech is the St Crispin’s day speech from Henry V. That’s the one where Henry V inspires his troops before battle and reminds them how they will feel in the pub afterwards. “Then will he strip his sleeves and show his scars, and say ‘these wounds I had on Crispin’s day’”.

This year was not easy, and next year will be challenging too. The North East has stuck together and that feels right. That’s the kind of North East people want to live in. I’ll keep on fighting for the recovery. We can get through this if we stick together.

Let’s embrace differences, even if it means enduring sprouts for Christmas dinner.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21.12.20

Mature Relationships Get Things Done

It’s said that the distance between the Government and Opposition benches in the House of Commons is two swords lengths, to stop them stabbing each other. If you watch some of the debates, it’s probably just as well.

Prime Minister’s Question time is meant to be the opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, and raise issues from their own constituencies. In practice it’s an exercise in point-scoring. The media join in, scoring the PM and the Leader of the Opposition on their performances. The focus is on who ‘won’, rather than finding the truth.

I made these points at a “Leadership in the 21st Century” event a few weeks back. I was asked why we don’t have better politicians.

There are three main reasons.

Firstly – the appearance doesn’t match the reality. Do you remember the headline, “MP handles niche local issue competently”? No. And you never will. 99% of politics doesn’t get reported. It’s not newsworthy. Barring a few egregious exceptions, politicians are pretty good at the bread and butter. And most work hard – from ward councillors through to cabinet ministers.

Secondly – politics in government is more difficult than it looks.

Council leaders, mayors and ministers have to be on top of a vast amount of subject matter.

I can go from a meeting about the Castleford Corridor in Manchester’s rail system because it impacts on services to Newcastle, to the pipeline of brownfield housing sites, and how we’ll get spades in the ground before Xmas. Next, a review of the Kickstarter partnership with DWP officials, then speak on a panel about the future of offshore wind, before chairing a strategy session on economic recovery. Then meet with a minister about international trade. All before lunch time.

You need to understand legal ramifications and budgetary implications. To speed read hundreds of pages of briefings. You have to build working relationships with people in the space of a few minutes. To go on live TV with no advanced warning of what you might be asked.

You have to deliver a vision based on values with only half the resources you need. You’re operating in an environment where the future is unknown but you’re responsible for planning for it. You need the courage to lead and the wisdom to listen. The world and his dog want a slice of your time. You have to display dignity in the face of abuse. You need to be the living embodiment of Kipling’s “If-“

To be all this, and someone who is witty, charismatic and photogenic is unrealistic. People expect Hollywood heroes, and are disappointed when they get humans.

Thirdly – our politics is deliberately adversarial.

It’s set up to be a win-lose game. Too often, people vote for the image, not the substance. It’s amplified by spin doctors. Their job is to help their politicians win the next election.

We saw it with Bernhard Ingham under Thatcher, Alistair Campbell / Malcolm Tucker under Blair, Andy Coulston under Cameron and Dominic Cummings under Johnson.

It is reinforced by the Whip system. MPs are corralled to be “on message”.

News media are businesses. Even the BBC chases ratings. Politics is entertainment. Producers and journalists have too little time. Clicks-per-story can be measured precisely. The pressure to sensationalise is intense. Nuanced debate is lost. You’re expected to inform the public in one sound bite.

As a Mayor I’m lucky. My mandate is direct from you. I don’t have to throw red meat to keep my backbenchers on side. There is no shadow mayor trying to slide tackle me with studs showing every week.

My job requires building alliances to get things done. My cabinet has the leaders and deputies from the three local authorities. I have to align the business organisations, trade unions, voluntary sector and public services. As a Labour Mayor, I work with Conservative ministers to find the win-win.

It’s notable how the mayors who used to be MPs describe this. “I feel like I’m dealing with grown-ups now,” one said. “Westminster was all about taking sides.” He was talking as much about politics within parties as between them.

We need to learn from this. To change politics, we need to change the way politicians have to work.

Originally Published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 14.12.20

With Power comes Responsibility

Are metro mayors properly scrutinised? That’s a question I was asked at last week’s Parliamentary Select Committee on devolution. Steve Rotherham, my counterpart in Liverpool City Region, says that we are the most scrutinised politicians anywhere. To get something done as Mayor, I have to persuade the 6 council leaders and deputies in my cabinet. Then there are 38 members and substitutes of various scrutiny bodies, and 41 people on our advisory boards. So my answer to the committee was, “Yes. At North of Tyne scrutiny works well.”

That’s how it should be. With power comes responsibility. Whether in elected office or an owner of a large business, you should be transparent and accountable for your decisions. American President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk saying “The buck stops here”. Yet in 2020 Britain, the powerful are showing contempt for this maxim. Too many behave as if the rules are for others and not for them.

Look at what’s happening on our high streets. The impending collapse of Arcadia, the retail empire which includes Topshop and Burton. The families of thousands of retail workers now face anxiety about paying their bills, rent and mortgages this winter. 13,000 jobs could go, and 10,000 of the employees’ pension pots are at risk.

And what’s the Arcadia chairman, knight of the realm Sir Philip Green, doing? He’s lounging on his £100 million super-yacht “Lionheart” in Morocco, enjoying his £1.2 billion fortune.

Tony Blair’s government gave Sir Philip Green his knighthood in 2006. Let’s hope Sir Keir Starmer does more than call on him to “do the right thing”. The shift away from trade union support and towards big money donors is a concern. The loss of votes in Labour heartlands can trace its roots in this kind of cronyism. Labour needs to stand tall in defence of working people and their livelihoods.

There’s a misconception that socialists like me oppose entrepreneurship and wealth generation. The opposite is true. I oppose wealth extraction, asset stripping and tax dodging. I oppose corporations like Starbucks who dodge their taxes. I oppose bandits who pay themselves £billions in dividends while bleeding pension funds dry. The pension contributions of those workers are deferred wages. It’s nothing short of legalised theft.

I support the hard-working entrepreneurs who own and run local coffee shops. I support the 2 million ExcludedUK, the owners of small business who Rishi Sunak has abandoned. Driving instructors, independent shop owners, freelance workers, micro-brewers and everyone else who is part of that rich ecosystem of small businesses. I support them with actions, not just words. Earlier in the year the North of Tyne funded shared workspaces so business who don’t pay business rates could stay afloat. Rishi Sunak needs to step up now, or we’ll see millions of small owner-managed businesses go belly up.

This culture of elite contempt for rules, for the “little people”, and impunity from consequences is embedding itself in government. The Home Secretary’s bullying is ignored. Covid rules don’t apply to special advisors flouting lockdown.

Last month’s National Audit Office report into Covid procurement revealed a shocking “chumocracy”. Companies placed in a “high priority” channel were ten times more likely to be awarded a contract. How did you get into this channel? Expertise? An established supply chain? No. It was knowing a minister. Chumocracy indeed. Some might call it corruption.

Companies like Ayanda Capital Ltd – a currency-trading firm with no relevant expertise –won a £225 million contract to supply face masks for the NHS. When the product arrived, it was duff and unusable. We need a public inquiry into the management of the Covid pandemic.

Business and sleaze have long worked hand in hand but rarely on such a scale and without any apparent risk of consequences. There has been little pushback or scrutiny from parliament, let alone any minister taking responsibility and resigning. But they’re not all the same. This week Tesco voluntarily repaid £585m Covid business rates relief government had given them. You might ask why government gave them this golden windfall in the first place, but hats off to Tesco.

At North of Tyne I’ve worked hard to make us a transparent and accountable organisation. I was able to tell the Parliamentary Committee how we are embedding a culture of accountability. How we co-design our policies with the people affected by them. And on a personal level, I hold Mayor’s Question Time, write a weekly column, and produce a weekly video of what I’ve been doing.

Whether in business or in politics, trust matters. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7.12.20

Spending review=Pay Freeze

On Wednesday we had the long-awaited spending review. Since May the Chancellor had told us it would be a comprehensive spending review. There was nothing comprehensive in this. No multi-year strategic vision.

What did we get? A public sector pay freeze. Let’s call that for what it is: a pay cut in real terms. Ministers were keen to post videos of themselves clapping keyworkers back in the summer. But firefighters, teachers, council workers and countless others have been insulted. Despite all the personal risk, inadequate PPE, cancelled leave days and unpaid overtime, they are still paid less today than in 2010. This is more of the austerity that even the International Monetary Fund say is economically damaging.

The “levelling up fund” will release £600 million next year. But it’s a competitive bid process for the whole of the country, not about levelling up the North. No strategic criteria have been set. The Towns Fund has been plagued with cases of pork-barrel politics: ministers signing off money for places that serve their re-election needs. The public value for money is invariably poor.

The third item of note was £billions for the DWP to get people into jobs. Which sounds good, until you think about the basic logic. Rather than spending £billions to help people find jobs, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend money creating jobs? Making people spend 30 hours a week hunting for jobs that don’t exist is dispiriting and demeaning. People will find the jobs if the jobs are there.

We’ve been through this loop time and again in the past ten years of austerity. Serco’s failure on test and trace. Carillion going bust. Damning value-for-money audit reports for corporate outsourcing firms.

They have this ideological obsession that if government does nothing, multi-nationals will create millions of jobs. It won’t, it hasn’t, and it never will unless the government intervenes. It’s far too profitable for big money to speculate on property portfolios and share buybacks. Meanwhile, 3 million small businesses are falling through the gaps of coronavirus support.

We’ve taken a different approach in the North of Tyne. We’ve safeguarded 1,782 jobs, and our projects are in place creating 2,732 new jobs across Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland. This week we’ve announced another 500 new jobs created, bringing a global software developer here. These are good jobs – high paying, high skill, permanent jobs. Not minimum wage jobs in the gig economy. They are low-carbon jobs, exporting software over the internet.

We’re doing this with £20 million a year, and we’ve only been going 18 months. If we had the firepower that central government has, we could end unemployment. Across the country, Mayoral Combined Authorities have hit timescales and budgets time after time.

Imagine what this spending review could have been. The Chancellor could have said, “There you go, Jamie, there you go other Mayors, here’s half a billion, build me 5,000 homes.” We’ve got desperate need for affordable housing, for eco-friendly homes. We could have created jobs, lined up the apprenticeships and training opportunities, worked with supply chains to keep money in local economies. And at the end of it, we’d have the houses – real, tangible financial assets. Ultimately, it costs the taxpayer nothing – it pays for itself.

Over the summer, government wrote to me, and asked me to develop a plan for economic recovery. Everyone in the region pulled together, north and south of the Tyne, Local Authorities, businesses, universities, the lot. It would generate 55,000 high-quality jobs, 26,000 training opportunities, 15,000 new homes and retrofit another 100,000. It included clean, fast public transport, getting everyone where they needed to go reliably. It protected livelihoods, moving thousands of jobs from older, polluting industries into zero-carbon sustainable jobs. Also it boosted the economy so it would pay for itself with increased taxes from firms and the spending power it would have put in your pocket.

That’s why we need serious devolution. The CBI, Trade Unions, Think Tanks, Local Authorities, higher education, and, well, pretty much everyone thinks it’s long overdue. By law, there has to be a budget before next April. For all our sakes, let’s hope the Chancellor gets it right next time.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 30.11.20

Leave No One Behind

The new series of The Crown has started on Netflix, covering the 1980s – the Thatcher Years. Gillian Anderson’s performance is superb, portraying Mrs Thatcher’s views on Life, the Universe and Everything. People should help themselves, women are too emotional to be trusted, and people should stop waiting for the Nanny State (or anyone else) to help them.

Thatcher’s original Cabinet Ministers – the ‘wets’ – try to tone down her ideas, and warn her it will create devastating levels of unemployment. It’s still quite shocking to hear just how uncaring and compassionless she was.

Many of us remember the closures of steel works, shipyards, wagonworks and mines. We now know the deep scarring caused by mass unemployment. The fact that our wealth generating industries have been swapped for temporary contracts and the gig economy. The Crown shows what caused the levelling down of the North that we now need to fix.

And it was all built on a false prospectus. “Greed is good” summed up the Thatcher-Regan consensus. The 1987 film Wall Street articulated the idea that greed was natural, efficient, and just and expression of evolution. The idea that if we’re all greedy, then in the long run, we’ll all be better off.

It’s lazy thinking. It’s based on the false assumption that life, and the economy, is a zero sum game. That if one person wins, someone else must lose. We all know that the opposite is true. That to thrive and survive, we all have to work together.

There’s a great scene in the 2001 Russell Crowe film, a Beautiful Mind. The young John Nash (Crowe) is in a university bar with his mates, trying to work out how to chat up women. They cite Adam Smith: ‘the best result comes from everyone doing what’s best for themselves’. Nash proves that it’s mathematically better to cooperate than compete. The best result comes from everyone doing what’s best for themselves, and what is best for the group. It’s worth a watch on YouTube.

Thatcher’s famously claimed there’s no such thing as society. By this logic, businesses and private enterprises should never invest in infrastructure for the common good. It’s uncompetitive, and would also benefit their rivals.

There’s no reason for one supermarket chain to carry the cost of building a road network, if all of the other supermarkets and shops can use it. Or one car manufacturer to set up schools where anyone can learn to read and count. Or write poetry. Or learn history.

Maybe if all the supermarkets, and car manufacturers, and building firms, and, well, everyone, invested in physical infrastructure (roads, clean water, power grids, sewerage). And also invested in social infrastructure (parks, education, libraries, immunisation programmes), then all the firms would benefit. And so would all of the people working for them.

Of course, some companies would be tempted to freeload. So why not make the contributions compulsory. And call them tax. And set up agencies that can invest in, and train, staff to take a long-term view on these things. And call them publicly-owned assets. And put them under democratic control. And hey presto! A civilised society that thrives, encourages innovation, and looks after its more vulnerable citizens. In fact, as long as you don’t call it socialism, most people agree with socialism.

Perhaps the worst aspect of extreme free-market thinking is its short-termism. If we optimise a firm for maximum profit, we’ll see the best outcome. It makes perfect, intuitive sense. And is invariably disastrous in the long term.

We all know, as private citizens, that it’s much cheaper to get your car serviced regularly, rather than wait for the engine to seize up on the motorway.

So, in fact, do most businesses. It’s myth that most businesspeople are free-market fundamentalists. That’s why the Confederation of British Industry has called for Mayoral Combined Authorities to get long-term, devolved funding streams. Short-term competitive bids for central government funds waste time, money and opportunity.

This is the basis of the next devolution deal I’m asking government for. Long term funding, so we can plan. Based on a principle of a clean economy, where no one is left behind.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23.11.20

Great North Eastern Railways, We hope

The North East’s rail network has an unusual geography. We’re almost an island – the only routes in or out are the East Coast Mainline, or the track to Carlisle. With all the talk of high speed rail, the biggest problem we face is capacity. There’s no advantage to a train capable of 255mph if it’s stuck behind a Pacer doing 55mph.

Coming from the south, the East Coast Mainline (ECML) has four tracks until you reach Northallerton. Then it’s two tracks all the way to Durham, Newcastle, Berwick and Scotland. That’s one track in each direction.

If you’ve ever been on an intercity train through our region, and wondered why it’s driving so slowly, that’s your reason. If one train runs late, it delays all the other services on the same line. This is why you sometimes get stuck crawling along behind a freight train, or stopped for ages at York waiting for a train to overtake.

The Transpennine Express trains that run to Manchester can’t travel as fast as the Azumas that go to London. Freight trains run even slower, and are limited to outside peak hours. Anyone who’s caught the last train back from London knows it takes 4hrs 20 minutes. If you’re lucky.

The whole line is straining at its capacity. We can squeeze in six trains per hour. Two go to London, two to Manchester / Liverpool, and two to Birmingham and beyond. Because the bottleneck is from Northallerton northwards, HS2 won’t fix this. Even for £106 billion. Nor will HS2a, or HS2b. Or the approximately £40 billion earmarked for Northern Powerhouse Rail. That will mostly be spent digging tunnels under the Pennines, and revamping stations between Hull and Liverpool. Manchester are wanting to spend several £billion on a new underground station. I keep having to remind people, the North doesn’t stop at the M62.

What was in the plan for us? Diddley squat. HS2 would reach York, eventually, possibly in the 2040s. But the shiny new trains would have to use the existing twin track and Victorian infrastructure. Whether Geordie, Mackam, Smoggy or Berwicker, we were supposed to crawl south to York before benefiting from faster trains.

None too chuffed with this, our North East transport team have developed an alternative plan. It’s called the Leamside Line. It diverges from the East Coast Mainline at Ferryhill. It travels through the Durham Coalfield, via Washington and joins back up with the network near Heworth. It was mothballed in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts but the track bed still exists. Reopening it would give us 4 tracks and the extra capacity and reliability we need. It opens the possibility of improving services to Washington and Sunderland. We can integrate it into an expanded Metro network at multiple locations, so you don’t have to go into Newcastle Central to catch a Metro to Sunderland or South Shields. What’s not to like?

In effect, it doubles our capacity. We can run 12 trains per hour – and faster, because we can run slower trains down one line, and faster trains down the other. The Leamside route is still there. It’s a tiny fraction of the price per mile of HS2 or London’s Crossrail. Heaven knows why it was missed off the plans.

I’ve spoken to everyone from the Secretary of State for Transport, three different junior transport ministers, numerous DFT officials, and the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. I’ve done a double act with Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council and chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee. We’ve even organised some calls mob handed, bringing in local business leaders and the region’s universities.

In the next few months, central government will announce its Integrated Rail Plan. Long story short, the Leamside Line is now back in the mix. I never relax until the funding is signed off, but we might finally see some National Rail investment into the North East.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16.11.2020

A Fair Days Pay For a Fair Days Work

In my first few months in office, I made the North of Tyne an accredited Living Wage employer. We’re a small organisation, mainly highly skilled workers already on more than £9.30 an hour. But it did affect the cleaners, receptionists and security staff who maintain the building. We also have a gender pay gap of zero – the men and the women get the same median pay. It was another manifesto pledge, and we’re rattling through delivering them, despite the extreme disruption caused by Covid. Living Wage Week 2020 starts today (9th Nov). It celebrates the 6,500 UK employers UK who do the right thing pay their workers the Real Living Wage. For 2019/20, the Real Living Wage was £9.30 per hour. Next year’s figure is out soon. The amount is calculated on what people actually need to live on, without falling into debt. It accounts for food, clothes, bills, transport and housing. Compare it to the legal minimum wage of £8.21 for the same period, and you can see it makes a huge difference to the low paid. It was an act of deception when the government renamed the minimum wage the “National Living Wage” – it’s not. Which is why we still need the Living Wage Foundation to look at the reality of living with low pay. The Real Living Wage applies to all workers, even those under 25. Under the minimum wage, they can legally be paid as little as £4.55 an hour. People should be paid for the work they do, not discriminated against because of their age.

Everyone should be paid enough to live decently and provide for their family. No-one should experience the indignity of in-work poverty or low wage exploitation. Yet 21% of all workers across the UK, including 60,000 in the North of Tyne, are still paid less than the £9.30 per hour. It’s a false economy – it causes hardship, and is directly correlated to health problems and educational entertainment. Public services then have to pick up the strain. Low pay affects us all.

There’s an indelible moral case for paying the Real Living Wage. But there’s also a sound economic case. Good employers have realized that paying the Real Living Wage is good for business. In 2017, The Living Wage Foundation surveyed 800 employers who had signed up. An amazing 93% reported their business had benefited from paying higher wages. Increased motivation, lower days off sick, and higher staff retention were all good for productivity. Many of our local employers have realized this and have signed up. There are now 59 accredited employers representing over 33,000 employees across North of Tyne area. And I’d like to give a special mention to Sunderland City Council, who’ve joined us as an accredited Living Wage Employer – no mean feat, given the brutal assault on local government finance.

This week we’re also launching the North of Tyne Good Work Pledge. To qualify, employers have to demonstrate they’re not using exploitative contracts, they’re paying the Real Living Wage, they look after their staff wellbeing, have career development opportunities, and engage with their workers, including recognising trade unions. We’ll be linking this to public sector procurement so that companies wanting to bid for work will need to be good employers.

Decent pay is also good news for the local economy. When billionaires get a 10% income increase, it ends up in tax havens. Give an ordinary worker a 10% pay increase, and they decorate the back bedroom, or go out to a gig at a local venue. Their spending creates jobs for local people. Received wisdom says that internet shopping is killing our high streets. That’s undoubtedly a factor. But too few people have any money left after paying bills and debts. Zero hours contracts are a third higher in the North East than the UK average. Low paid and part-time workers are five times more likely than other workers to be furloughed on reduced pay. I’ve lobbied hard to have a floor on furlough – so no one gets less than minimum wage. People simply can’t get by on 80% of £8.72 an hour.

A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That’s not too much to ask is it?

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 9.11.20

The North will Remember

On September 18th, the North East’s council leaders and I asked government for the powers to impose additional restrictions. We knew that cases were rising. We knew that government’s insistence on keeping universities open, with face-to-face teaching was a mistake. Government did nothing, so we did what we could. And it worked, as well as can be expected. Within a couple of weeks our case rate had stopped climbing. As I write, we’re the only place in England where cases have stabilised.

Government still tried to force us into Tier 3, using press leaks to make it seem inevitable. We argued with them repeatedly, and showed their data did not support it. Government’s own medical officers accepted this. But political advisors from no 10 thought that something must be seen to be done, so kept trying to force us. That’s how government operates these days. Evidence is just a secondary consideration. Our fight wasn’t as public as Manchester’s, but all our region’s leaders – cross party – stood strong.

Now we face national lockdown. We know that the virus spreads faster when the weather is cold, and dark and wet. People are inside more. Windows are closed, ventilation is poor. Winter is coming.

The main reason I opposed Tier 3 is because it would not have worked. I’ve been told by public health officials that it’s not spreading in restaurants and non-essential retail. It’s schools, universities, care homes and workplaces. None of which is affected by Tier 3. None of which is closed by the National Lockdown. We need to target infections in those places, and closure is not the only tool.

We’ve been pressing for months for better test and trace linked in with our local expert teams. You may have heard me on the telly, asking for support while we were in Tier 2, rather than leaving it too late. I’ve been lobbying hard for powers to close noncompliant businesses or public spaces. Finally, the legislation will go through Parliament this week.

One example shows why we need this. A nail bar in the North West had a sign in the window: “Covid is a hoax. No masks allowed in here.” The local public health officials went round to explain how dangerous this was, but were told to eff off. The police went, and the owners took the sign down. Then put it up again after the police left.

This is an insult to all the businesses who are keeping people safe. All the pubs and restaurants who are impeccably following the guidance. All the independent businesses that people have put their money and their effort into, and who have paid their taxes for years. I want to protect these businesses.

Some cases spread because people don’t follow the rules. So please, respect social distancing, don’t mix with people from other households (except for a support bubble), wear your mask in public, and wash your hands. This disease is dangerous. Even if it doesn’t harm you, you could pass it on to someone more vulnerable.

I always try to build good working relationships with people. Political leaders, business owners, trade unionists, religious leaders, charity workers, and, of course, all the staff in my own team. Political posturing achieves little. My politics are strongly socialist, but I know to implement anything that makes a difference means taking people with me. I look for solutions that work.

But this must be said: this government holds Northerners in contempt. As if denying free school meals to kids in poverty wasn’t enough. Now we know for certain that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove think Northerners are second class citizens. When they were trying to force us into Tier 3, along with the rest of the North, all of the people whose jobs would have been shut down would have got 67% of their wages. We were told it was a red line. Non-negotiable. As soon as London and the South East are going into lockdown, furlough is back up to 80%.

This government doesn’t care about the North, or our people. When it comes to the next election, send them a message: The North Remembers.

Originally published in the Journal a Evening Chronicle 2 November 2020

A Million Reasons to Act…

  

Unprecedented times demand unprecedented measures. That’s the gist of a new report on youth employment published last week by the Alliance for Full Employment. Youth Report: A Million Reasons to Act is based on a study by Professor Paul Gregg from Bath University. He warns that as many as one million young people will be unemployed by the start of November. Without urgent action we’ll see a Covid generation as lost as the 1980S YTS generation.

The economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic disproportionately targets the under-25s. We’ve had years of a gig-economy and zero-hours contracts. Too many young people have precarious jobs as bar staff, delivery workers, and other low paid work.

60% of post-March redundancies are 16 to 24 years old. The unemployment rate for young men is already three times the over-25 rate. In the North of Tyne we’ve seen the youth claim count rise from 3,700 to 7,000. That’s a near doubling between March and August. The real number unemployed is worse – many young people are ineligible for benefits.

When the furlough scheme finishes in a week’s time, a million 16-24 year olds will need a job. There’s a scarcity of new vacancies. Half a million more school and college leavers have joined the job market. Prospects are bleak. As in the 1980s, youth unemployment in the North and Midlands could exceed 20%.

Long term unemployment can scar a young person’s future. Decades later we see stunted careers, poverty, mental ill health and poor community engagement. Getting young people earning a living in secure jobs is good for all of us.

Since the onset of the pandemic, my officers have worked tirelessly to create opportunities for our young people. We’ve used our devolved Adult Education Budget to help 37,500 young people enrol for qualifications and training. We’ve funded projects like the Nurture, Nourish and Thrive programme at the Cedarwood Trust in North Shields. Youngsters in the local area can gain qualifications in childcare, and related skills.

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We’re adapting the national £2 billion Kickstart scheme to have a local place-based approach. One that suits the needs of young people in North of Tyne. Kickstarters are for youngsters under 24 on Universal Credit. Under the scheme, employers get £6,500 per person to cover six-months’ wages. Plus £1,500 per person to pay for wrap-around support – training, coaching and the like.

However, only employers who can take 30 or more young people can apply directly. So the North of Tyne Combined Authority will become a “Gateway” organisation for the scheme.

We’re investing an extra £500,000 to help our small businesses join the scheme. We’ll support them to provide high quality placements leading to good jobs in the green economy and digital industries. And we’ll make sure the training is high quality, and the young people are learning valuable skills, not just doing grunt work.

The Alliance for Full Employment, which I’ve signed up to along with the other Labour Metro Mayors, is calling for the PM to live up to his pledge to do “whatever it takes”. The Alliance is calling for a UK wide jobs summit to provide a coordinated response. This dovetails with the TUC’s call for a Job Guarantee Scheme for young people, not just the “opportunity guarantee” the PM announced over the summer.

Work schemes and training are essential short-term measures to halt a long-term catastrophe. But the freedom to look for a job is no freedom at all. There have to be jobs to find. I’ve called on the government to fund our Regional Economic Recovery plan, to create 35,000 jobs in the North of Tyne alone. Unemployed, school-leaver, or graduate, young people need permanent jobs. Careers with prospects, and security. The pride that they’re earning a decent living and paying their way. The sense that their fate is in their hands.

We can prevent a repeat of the 1980s. We have a million reasons to act now to stop a whole generation of young people losing out.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 26.10.20

Standing up for the North

A week is a long time in a pandemic.
Last Friday, (9th Oct), a meeting with Number 10 mysteriously popped into my calendar. Ministers wanted to talk to me and my Local Authority colleagues about the new Tier system. Later that afternoon, as I logged into the video conference, it got cancelled.

Eventually there was a briefing with a civil servant. It would all end in Tiers, we were told.
“But what are the criteria for moving from Tier to another?” I asked. We don’t have that information, was the answer.
“Why have no ministers come on this call?” asked one of my Local Authority leader colleagues. “Erm, none were available.”
“Who makes the decisions?” Unknown.
“What are the restrictions?” Pubs will shut. And possibly restaurants. Or possibly not. And gyms, and soft play. But not universities, despite there being two universities in Newcastle with over 1000 cases each.

After an hour we knew for certain that we might or might not be in Tier 2 or Tier 3, which might or might not mean closing some businesses or others, and someone unspecified would make the decision, but on what basis and with what evidence we didn’t know. World beating.

The government’s publicity machine then announced on national television, radio and in print, that we’d had meaningful engagement.
I spoke to the other Northern Mayors. They’d had the same fiascos.

Why do we get no support while in Tier 2, to prevent us needing to move into Tier 3? Surely, if this is about containing the virus, we should get resources now to keep people safe
By Monday morning, government had located some cabinet ministers and the PM’s senior advisors. It’s such a pity that it takes media pressure.

Cross party, local leaders are as one on this issue. We will not agree to moving into Tier 3 and destroy livelihoods unless we see evidence that it will keep people safer, or we get the financial support to protect our people. No one gets left behind.
The fact is, you should only close a place if it is spreading the virus. Otherwise you just move the problem elsewhere.

Most businesses are taking their responsibilities seriously and doing a cracking job keeping people safe. And a few aren’t. But, the powers to close non-compliant businesses are weak, and subject to lengthy legal challenge.

This Friday (16th Oct) we finally got a briefing with the Deputy Chief Medical officer, a minister and senior No 10 advisor. The tone was different. It was professional, evidence based. Our Local Public Health experts discussed the data. It was concluded, that the existing restrictions are having some effect. We should remain in Tier 2, unless the evidence changes.

I followed up on getting the powers we need, and trying to get more financial support to prevent moving into Tier 3. When you can get a junior minister 1-to-1, the meetings can be productive.

Where does this leave us?


We’re in Tier 2 for now. We still don’t know the criteria that would cause the PM to move us into Tier 3. If we did, we could communicate it, and build public support.
We want people to keep safe – so please, wear your mask, wash your hands, and keep socially distanced. Please follow the law and the guidelines. You’ll be keeping yourself safe, keeping your relatives safe, and setting good example. And you might protect people’s jobs and livelihoods too.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19.10.20

Zero Carbon Now ?

There shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth than over ninety-nine just persons. It’s good to see the Prime Minister contradicting his 2013 statement that “wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.” Or, presumably, an Eton mess.

So I’m delighted that he intends to invest £160m for all UK homes to be powered and heated by offshore wind within ten years. However…

A report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) points out that at current rates it will take 700 years to hit zero-carbon heating. The PM’s plans are based on current electricity usage. Renewables now account for 40% of the UK’s electricity. But electricity accounts for only 12% of UK energy use. That leaves 95% of UK energy not coming from renewables. Demand for electricity will increase as we shift from gas heating and hot water to electricity. Not to mention the move to electric vehicles. That’s going to cost a wee bit more than £160 million.

UKERC’s report also stresses that relying on consumers to replace their central heating systems won’t cut the mustard either. There’ll need to be a mixture of regulations for new homes and financial incentives. The government’s new Planning White Paper says new houses must be “zero-carbon ready”. I met with Robert Jenrick last week, Secretary of State for Housing, and asked why “zero-carbon ready”? Why not zero-carbon now? Parliamentary legislation should be judged on actions, not aspirations.

On the positive side, he did listen to me on MMC housing. That’s Modern Methods of Construction. Basically, engineered timber that’s fireproof, warm, quick to build and extremely strong. And of course, locks away carbon in its structure. A typical new build house releases 65 tonnes of carbon. A typical MMC house locks away 27 tonnes.

So, what does “investing in offshore wind” mean in practice?

The Tyne has companies building and transporting turbine jackets – the massive criss-cross steel legs that sit in the sea. They’re fixed to the seabed and support the turbines. The further out to sea they are, the windier it gets, which is what you want, but that does present engineering challenges.

It’s extremely difficult to get a crane big enough to haul a horizontal jacket to vertical in the middle of the sea. So jackets have to be transported upright. The problem is the National Grid cables cross the river at Jarrow, 84m above the water level. So yards on the Tyne can’t bid for work on these large new turbines. They simply won’t fit underneath the cables.

If the cables ran under the river instead of over it, we could make our region the world leader in offshore wind manufacture. It’ll cost £100m to run the cables under the Tyne. We have the expertise – from design through fabrication to installation – right here on the Tyne. All £100m of that project could be delivered by companies in our region, creating local jobs

.I’ve spoken to the companies involved, and they are unanimous in their support. If the government releases the funding, we could get cracking right now.

But what would make more of a difference than anything else is for government to enforce the local content regulation. In order to site wind turbines in UK waters, electricity generating companies are supposed to give 60% of the work to UK firms. They don’t. Enforcing this could make more of a difference than anything else. There’s a £40 billion pipeline of work in this sector already.

Eight of the companies on the north bank of the Tyne, upstream of the electricity cables, directly employ over 2000 staff and have an annual turnover of more than £500m. This is small potatoes compared to the number of jobs and money that could be created- and kept – in our region. They’ve all told me they would invest heavily if the UK government enforced the local content regulations and moved the cables underground.

We’ve submitted this plan to the government, as part of the comprehensive spending review.

So come on Boris, complete your Damscene conversion, blow the skin off your chequebook, and invest in the North East.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12.10.20

Invest To Save

Boilers on prescription might not sound like an obvious link to radical devolution. But it’s a strategy that GPs working with housing provider Gentoo implemented in Sunderland in 2016. And it worked.

The scheme allowed GPs to “prescribe” new, efficient boilers and home insulation to patients suffering respiratory conditions and living in damp, cold homes. It cost the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group £5,000 per home. But the savings and health benefits were remarkable. Residents saved around £125 annually on their fuel bills, removing some financial stress. Their bedrooms were 3 degrees warmer. GP appointments, which cost the NHS £100 each, fell by 60% and emergency hospital admissions – at £2,500 each – dropped by 25%. And, best of all, people were happier.

It’s intuitively obvious that a stitch in time saves nine. In the North East we have some of the best hospitals in the world. Yet we have the lowest life expectancy in England.

Housing, income and transport all determine your health. If your work is insecure and you don’t know how much you’ll earn from week to week, the stress will take a toll on your health. If you can’t get to work or the shops on foot or by public transport, you’ll likely become dependent on your car.

But what’s the link to radical devolution?

Andy Burnham, my counterpart in Manchester, has taken a joined-up approach in tackling homelessness. People who are street homeless typically have very complex needs. His “A Bed Every Night” policy provides people with a safe and stable place to stay, and wrap-around support. The local NHS Trust, the Police and the Probation Services all work together. Yes, this costs money up front – around £11,000 per person. But it results in fewer admissions to A&E, and fewer nights in the police cells. The savings? £24,000 per person.

Manchester can do this, because health and policing are all devolved to their Mayoral Combined Authority. But despite the evidence that pilot schemes like boilers on prescription work, they rarely get implemented at scale.

Our country has seen ever greater fragmentation, outsourcing, and internal markets introduced. Services get contracted out to different firms. They’re only responsible for hitting their immediate targets. There’s no incentive to plan ahead, and no mechanism to recoup the savings if they did. The logic that free market competition will drive down prices doesn’t work with public services. It results in expensive duplication and administrative overheads. We don’t want our public services competing, we want them cooperating.

Public Health England’s latest data shows that three in ten adults are obese. This really matters. Obesity is a risk factor for chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, stroke and osteoarthritis. Around ten per cent of the annual NHS budget is spent on diabetes-related treatment alone. Childhood obesity is rising too. By 2050, it’s estimated that obesity will cost the UK £49.9 billion per year.

There’s a limit to what can be achieved with more leaflets or taxes on sugary drinks. It needs system change.

I’d like to see a public transport system that’s so cheap and reliable that people leave their cars at home. An extra ten minutes walk each way to work uses enough calories to lose half a stone in a year.

When poor employers pay low wages, they’re shunting the costs to us, the tax payer. Their workers’ health suffers along the way. A Good Work Pledge with a Real Living Wage saves us all money in the long run.

I’ve been lobbying government to adopt this Invest To Save approach for the North of Tyne’s next wave of devolution. Westminster is too remote for effective joined up policies. Rather than central government using our money to patch-up avoidable problems, I want to invest upfront and prevent them. It’s far more cost effective than the false economy of austerity.

Our society needs to start counting the true cost of our policies. Allowing regional governments to invest and improve people’s lives today will save money tomorrow. We’ll be healthier, more productive and happier.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5.10.20

A Green New Deal For All

Unemployment is the worst of the economic scourges. Pundits obsess about debt-to-GDP ratio, interest rates, inflation targets, and trade imbalances. But it’s unemployment that fuels anxiety, crushes mental health and lays waste to communities.

Having citizens unable to earn a living is a blight on prosperity. So Rishi Sunak was right to take action. But millions have lost their jobs, and his decision to cancel the budget means he’s not creating any new ones.

Let’s look at his Job Support Scheme. Suppose your normal salary is £20,800, or £400 a week. You come back part time, and get up to 77% of your pay (a 23% pay cut). So now you get £308, a loss of £92 per week. If you only have to pay 77% of your rent or mortgage, and the supermarkets only charge you for 77% of your food that’s fine. As long as your kids only need 77% of the clothes they grow out of, and your energy supplier gives you a 23% discount.

There are millions that Rishi’s Scheme won’t help. Anyone who worked in a cinema, a theatre or a night club. All those who worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. The millions of freelancers in arts and entertainment. Self-employed musicians and people who worked on turnstiles on a Saturday. When the state says “you must close your business”, it has a moral duty to provide an alternative to bankruptcy.

Unemployment is deep seated in the UK, and disguised by many names. Zero hours contracts. Bogus self-employment. Working Tax Credit is a symptom of an economy that cannot provide enough well-paid work to keep people’s heads above water.

Rishi Sunak’s ideology is showing. Just like giving £10 billion to inexperienced private firms to run a failing test and trace system, he’s relying on the market to create the new economy.

Free market capitalists believe that money is king, and the market will solve every problem. That the birth of the new is worth the pain and a certain mortality rate of jobs. Democratic socialists believe the state is the midwife for its citizens. That no one should be abandoned. That we should devolve decision making and empower people to build their own futures.

The economy has shifted. Millions of people will never again work full-time in offices. Whole sectors cannot operate. Internet shopping is affecting High Streets.

Rishi’s had seven months since the first Covid support was announced in the March budget. You can’t keep treating a broken leg with sticking plasters and pain killers. Sooner or later you have to set the bone so it can heal properly.

This is the perfect time for a Green New Deal.

We have millions who live in fuel poverty. We know that insulating homes saves people hundreds on their fuel bills, and saves the NHS a fortune in ill health. So why aren’t we launching a massive programme of retrofitting homes? It pays for itself over time.

We know our transport system is dysfunctional. Those without cars are unable to easily access work or education. Those with cars are trapped in congestion and air pollution. If Rishi gave us the power to use Land Value Capture, we could fund our own Metro and rail extensions now. They pay for themselves by increasing the value of the land around them. Everyone says they want to end land banking, so let’s do it.

We know our start-up companies need investment, not just debt. Other countries have a Sovereign Wealth Fund to support their people. We need a Regional Wealth Fund to invest in start-ups and local small businesses. We can shape our economy and reward firms who look after their staff and work sustainably.

We know the world needs an energy system that’s not dependent on oil or gas. We can install enough wind turbines in the North Sea to power the whole of Western Europe, and earn money from exports. If Rishi just enforced the existing rules that all wind turbines in British waters must have at least 60% British content, it would create 9000 jobs along the Tyne immediately. Think of all those well paid jobs in engineering. All the young men and women who could get apprenticeships and a secure future.

As a cabinet, the North of Tyne all know that supporting jobs is urgent. But the real task is creating a new, sustainable economy. I’ve asked the government for all the components for a Green New Deal. Our submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review understands the fact that there’s no conflict between sustainable public finances, a clean environment, and a secure future for our people. Warm housing, reliable transport, better health, and above all, a secure job for everyone who needs one.

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28.9.20

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Look After Each Other

The first duty of any government is to keep its people safe. In the absence of any leadership from Matt Hancock, Michael Gove or Boris Johnson, the North East’s Covid cases were doubling every week. Our local public health teams identified the transmission hotspots and asked central government to bring in some limited restrictions.

This isn’t a lockdown like it was in March. Pubs and cafes are still open, they just close at 10pm. You can buy things in shops. People can still go to work. If these measures don’t work, central government will impose a stricter lockdown.

Childcare is really expensive, and many families rely on grandparents and other relatives to look after their kids. School pick-ups, in particular are vital. Yet without any consultation, the Conservative government chose to make informal childcare illegal. I’ve written, along with all the local council leaders, insisting that this be reversed.

No wonder people are confused when Dominic Cummings is allowed to drive with his family across the entire country while he’s infected. But it’s now illegal for you to babysit your own family members

What we need is for people to look after themselves and other people. Read the FAQ published online. Wash your hands for 20 seconds. Wear a mask to help others – you don’t know if that person near you has asthma or not. Most importantly, keep 2 metres away from people.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger’. Well not with Covid. Even if you’re young and healthy, Covid can ruin your life. Patients who’ve caught Covid and recovered can still be left with damage to their heart muscles. The Lancet is reporting kidney and joint damage. Numerous studies are showing Covid causes damage to the cells of the brain and central nervous system. I was talking to a doctor, who reported that an increasing number of cases are dragging on and on, with people not recovering for months. Patients talk of being in a “brain fog” and unable to think clearly. Covid hasn’t been around long enough for us to know for certain how much your lifespan will shorten, even if you recover.

But two key components have been missing for too long. First, testing. Unless we can quickly and reliably tell who’s got the disease, we’re acting blindfolded. The omnishambles that has been the national testing and tracing system prompted a local response. Central government have finally got round to agreeing to give us the resources to run our own testing system. The Lighthouse Lab will be run between our hospitals and Local Authorities, and clear the backlog of tests.

And after I and others have been asking for months, government has finally realised that people who are skint will only self-isolate if they get financial support. Low paid workers will now get £500 to make up for their earnings loss when self-isolating. This should have been introduced back in March.

Health and wealth are interlinked. Dealing with Covid is an immediate problem, but we’ve endured poor health in our region for too long. We have the lowest life expectancy of all English regions, especially for women.

Parents are working, but they can’t afford to put food on the table for their kids. Almost three-quarters of the children in the North East are living in families with no or very little savings. They have no financial cushion to help them through.

That’s why all the jobs we’re creating in the North of Tyne are underpinned by our Good Work Pledge. Jobs need to be secure, pay enough to live on, and give people career progression.

I’m so pleased that the North of Tyne Combined Authority has a zero gender pay gap. On that note, hats off to Sunderland City Council who’ve joined us as an accredited Real Living Wage employer. This will make a massive difference to the lives of thousands of keyworkers in our region, and their families.

Your local authorities don’t have anything like the funding or the powers that central government have. But what they do have, they use wisely, to protect you and your loved ones.

Published Originally in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 21.9.20

Track and Trace the Corruption

How would you feel if someone broke the law, took £480 of your money, and spent it secretly?

In under six months, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have spent £10 billion on Test & Trace and £15 billion on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). That’s a staggering sum. It’s £480 per UK adult.

Hanbury Strategy is a PR firm co-founded by one of Dominic Cummings’ mates. They got £900,000 for research into behaviour linked to the pandemic. That’s enough to fund North of Tyne’s entire digital exclusion programme, that got disadvantaged kids the equipment they needed for online schooling through the lockdown.

Tory-linked PR firm, Topham Guerin were awarded £3 million. That would go a long way to keeping our North of Tyne community and voluntary sector going.

They gave a £108 million PPE contract go to a firm with just £18,000 of assets. Another contract for £108 million went to a confectionary wholesaler.

There was no evaluation of competitive tenders. They were just handed the cash. I bet you wish you had mates who would give you the odd million quid contract here and there.

My job puts me in contact with business leaders, CEOs, public officials, financial journalists. They tell me this government is now a by-word for incompetence. Mass deaths in care homes, exam fiascos, PPE masks that don’t work, lockdown rules flouted. Millions of self-employed still excluded from financial support. Food parcels sent to people shielding, full of banana-flavoured Angel Delight.

We’ve now added corruption to incompetence. The test and trace system has been a mess ever since the Conservatives decided to farm it out to private firms with no experience. It’s now led by Dido Harding, famous for the Talk Talk data breech. Who, when asked if 4 million customers’ data was encrypted, replied, ‘The awful truth is that I don’t know.

‘Between the end of May and the end of July, her army of 25,000 contact tracers tracked down a grand total of 51,524 people exposed to Covid. That’s one contact per month per employee. Staff describe having a WhatsApp group called the “Mouse Movers Club”. They remind each other to move their computer mouse every 15 minutes to avoid the system locking them out.

This £10 billion privatised national system contacts only 62% of people exposed to Covid. Compare that with our local public health teams’ success rate of 99%. Public health teams get £300 million, just 3% of the budget given to Dido Harding’s outfit.

How did Dido Harding get this job? A track record of running similar operations? An exhaustive selection against stiff competition? Nope. Harding was handed the job by Tory health secretary Matt Hancock. You judge whether it’s a coincidence that she’s married to the Conservative MP John Penrose. Whose think-tank, 1828, has called for the NHS to be replaced by universal health insurance.

All pretence of fiscal rectitude or democratic accountability has been abandoned. The government is refusing to publish details of the issued contracts. Under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, this refusal to be transparent is illegal. The Good Law Project launched legal action against them. If you’re outraged by the government’s corruption, give the Good Law Project your support.

Ministers used to take responsibility for failure. When caught doing favours in return for donations, they’d resign. The Prime Minister’s strategy must be to keep as many incompetent ministers as possible, so he doesn’t look so bad.

On that subject, this week saw the surprise resignation of Simon Clarke, Minister for Devolution (for personal reasons). As a Labour Mayor in power, I have to build alliances to get things done, and Simon was a strong supporter of devolution. Simon was open, good to work with, and on top of the detail. His departure removes one of the few competent ministers in government.

Now Boris & co have chosen to break international law. They’ve reneged on a treaty signed less than a year ago. Britain is trying to secure trade deals around the world. Tens of thousands of North East jobs depend on exports.

The world used to look to Britain as a benchmark of good governance. Now Johnson’s Britain is increasingly looking like Putin’s Russia: a kleptocracy.

https://www.facebook.com/GoodLawProject.orgGood Law Project

Posted originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 14.9.20

We May All Be Daniel Blake

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an age. An independent documentary crew asked if they could film my first year in office. Last week, I saw the final edit. The contrast between last summer and now was marked. Gone are the busy rooms, handshakes, and meetings. Now everyone I talk to appears in the same place: on my computer screen.

So many people in those clips were doing jobs that depend on proximity. Venue management. Audio-visual technicians. Caterers. Meeters and greeters, PAs and event hosts.

The furlough scheme is winding down in October. Millions are facing the threat of redundancy. Some sectors still need support, notably culture and events. The government needs to revise the furlough scheme and give them direct support. But so many other business models depend on footfall. The people who fit out offices. The sandwich shops whose trade depends on the office block round the corner. With home working set to become a permanent trend, many small business will struggle to survive. Businesses have tried innovative ways to bring money in. But they’re swimming against the tide.

Whether self-employed people can access help seems to depend the luck of the draw. One in seven UK workers are self employed. Delivery drivers, builders, sports commentators, company directors, hairdressers…it cuts across social divides.

The available funding is called the Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). HMRC identified 3.4 million eligible people based on their self-assessment tax return for the last 3 years. Of these, 75% applied to the scheme. This in itself is astonishingly high. It means only 25% of self-employed businesses are viable under Covid. In addition to that 3.4 million, we’ve got self-employed people who need support, but are denied. This includes anyone newly self-employed in the last year, about 200,000 people. Anyone earning more than £50k, even if their income dropped to £0 under Covid, another 225,000 people. Anyone earning less than 50% of their income from self-employment, about 1.2 million people. This non-self-employed income could be a pension, redundancy money, or salary from a job which ended earlier in the year. In total 1.6 million people nationally have been left to fall through the safety net. I and many others have told government. But they’ve done nothing.

In January, 3.8% of 16 to 64 year olds in the North of Tyne claimed benefits. By July that rose to 6.8%, marginally above the national average of 6.5%. On top of that, by July, 29.5% of the workforce in the North of Tyne were on furlough. The national rate was 29.9%.

White collar jobs in particular are facing a crisis. Fewer jobs are available, and the number of applicants has increased threefold. I’ve seen a junior local government post attract applicants from as far as Spain, Bulgaria and the USA. People in middle-management are facing unemployment. They’ve never had any contact with the benefits system. If they or their partner have savings, they may not qualify. Or shares, or an ISA, or even a redundancy payment. They’ll soon understand why people like Ken Loach have been making films about it.

The government’s plan to hire more work coaches is all very well. But unless there are actual jobs to be had, people will be chasing their tails.

What needs to happen? Instead of dishing out contracts to mates, government should invest in the public services gutted by austerity. Then we might get a test and trace system with the skill and capacity it needs.

We’ve got Brexit coming up. We still haven’t hired and trained the extra customs officers we need. Above all, we need a Green New Deal. We should build homes for affordable rent. Retrofit houses to save energy and keep people warm and healthy. Build wind turbines to provide cheap, plentiful electricity. Build a clean transport system. One that’s safe, and cheap, and works for everyone, from 8 to 80. In the North East alone, this would create 38,000 jobs.

In November, the government will announce its Comprehensive Spending Review. The North of Tyne is submitting our plan for economic recovery. Its foundation will be creating good quality jobs in a Green New Deal.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7.9.20

Stand with Extinction Rebellion, because you might be next

“Extinction Rebellion could be treated as an organised crime group as part of a major crackdown on its activities that may also include new protections for MPs, judges and the press, The Telegraph can disclose.”

Extinction Rebellion’s bamboo blockade

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are calling for Extinction Rebellion to be classified as “serious organised crime”.  Some Tories are demanding they be classed as a terrorist organisation. 

Why?  Because Extinction Rebellion blocked a road to stop some newspapers being delivered.  Apparently, that threatens democracy.  They are claiming that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is essential infrastructure. 

Under the 2015 Serious Crime Act an organised crime group “has at its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities, and consists of three or more people who agree to act together to further that purpose”.

Those found to have participated in the activities of an organised crime group can be imprisoned for up to five years.

There has been no violence.  No one has been hurt.  All Extinction Rebellion did was park some lorries on outside the gates of the print works, and build a bamboo scaffold and chain themselves to it.  They stopped one day’s delivery of some newspapers.  Specifically, Tory supporting newspapers owned by billionaire foreign nationals who do not pay tax in the UK. 

Now, some people might find Extinction Rebellion annoying.  Fair enough, I support your right to be peacefully annoyed at people.  But that doesn’t make them terrorists.  Or a threat to democracy.  Murdoch’s News International already has legal recourse against Extinction Rebellion activists.  Like anyone else who is inconvenienced or has experienced financial loss, they can sue.  There is no need to change the law. 

Serious organised crime is drug smuggling, forcing trafficked women into prostitution, and murdering people.  Given the level of violent crime on our streets on a standard pre-Covid Saturday night, I’d say there is a long list of people to deal with before we label climate activists as Mafiosi. 

Personally, I find right-wing journalists annoying.  Those who pedal racism and hate and division and xenophobia and who denigrate the poor and the oppressed.  I still wouldn’t claim that Murdoch’s News International is “serious organised crime”.  Even after the phone hacking scandal, which was, after all, serious, organised and criminal. 

Extinction Rebellion are a breath of fresh air.  Let’s face it, they’re good at putting the climate crisis on the agenda.  And speaking as someone with a degree in engineering, I was rather impressed with their bamboo scaffold.  I’m all for STEM based ingenuity in our public discourse. 

The truth is, we do not have a free press.  We have a billionaire press, owned by five people who live in tax havens.  We have freedom of speech, that’s different.  

Mind you, Britain has just been placed on a press freedom watch list by the Council of Europe.  An honour we share with such bastions of freedom as Putin’s Russia, and Erdogan’s Turkey.  What triggered a Level 2 “media freedom alert” on Britain?  Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s government has blacklisted investigative journalists.  So let’s fix that, before we target peaceful protesters.  (See the article in the Independent.)

We also have freedom of protest.  As long as it’s ineffective.  That’s what’s at stake here.

Because as soon as a protest hits the mega-rich in their pockets, it’s not allowed.  Claims that delivering the Daily Telegraph is essential infrastructure equivalent to water or electricity supplies is laughable. 

Claiming that democracy is under threat if people miss a day of the Daily Mail is pure Orwellian Newspeak. 

What’s Extinction Rebellion’s beef with these papers?  That they don’t tell the truth about the climate crisis.  They don’t.  It’s not in dispute.  Don’t take my word for it.  James Murdoch has publicly criticised News International for its deceit about climate breakdown.  This is the same James Murdoch who famously sat alongside his father Rupert in front of a Parliamentary inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. 

There’s a simple resolution here.  The papers could just tell the truth.  The UN IPCC has said that if even if we meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement, we’ll see around 3.2 degrees of global heating.  That’s beyond the threshold for unstoppable feedback – it will destroy the world economy, food production, and leave large parts of the planet uninhabitable.  Action has to happen. 

The worrying thing is that if the Tories implement this law, it won’t just be XR who are targeted. 

Remember all those keyworkers we clapped for?  Carers, bus drivers, shop workers, teachers, junior doctors, nurses, senior doctors, fire-fighters, delivery drivers, council workers…   you know, everyone who keeps the country running?  Well such a law could easily be used to criminalise any industrial action.  Do we want to live in a country where anyone who threatens the interests of billionaires will face five years in prison? 

Stand with Extinction Rebellion, because you might be next. 

Auf Weidersehen Locally Produced News ?

Auf Weidersehen, Pet was a landmark of my childhood. First broadcast in the depths of the Thatcher recession, when I was in secondary school. The North East had lost a hundred thousand jobs in manufacturing. And along came this show with Geordie bricklayers like Dennis, Neville and Oz. It was a programme about hard working British tradesmen working abroad in horrible conditions to provide for their families. But perspective is a funny thing. Add in a bit of xenophobia, and the right-wing narrative today would be about immigrants taking the jobs of the locals.

It was also about the accents. It wasn’t the first TV programme to feature Geordie dialect, we’d had The Likely Lads. But growing up, it was the first time I can remember a programme where no one spoke with RP – received pronunciation. We heard Geordie, Brummie and Scouse voices. Even Wayne, the London joiner, had a working class accent instead of BBC English.

Regional programming celebrates the diversity of British culture. Regional News is a component of devolved democracy. The Covid crisis has shown the importance of local government. Where central government has responded with indecision and U-turns, local government has delivered. Where central government has given £ billions in contracts to inept private firms with no experience, professional local government workers have fixed problems.

poSo why then has the BBC decided to cut 450 jobs from regional news and current affairs? Inside Out is scheduled to be axed. Editorial control will be moved from Newcastle to Birmingham. Worse, journalists will be replaced by “content producers”. Investigative journalism is a key antidote to social media speculation and political spin.

The news team will see 8 correspondents cut to 3. They’ll now film their own stories, possibly on their phones. I’ve been interviewed enough times to see the skill needed to get the sound and lighting right, and frame a shot. To able to interview someone and ask probing questions requires concentration. Not something you can do while holding your phone with a selfie stick.

The new ‘local’ programmes will be covering huge areas with fewer staff. Audiences will be less well informed about stories relevant to the North East & Cumbria. We’ll see and hear fewer programmes about our lives on TV & radio

.Local journalism, whether print, online or TV, is an essential component of local democracy. Local communities need information about what is happening in their areas. They need to know about the policies and decisions of their local representatives. They need a trusted vehicle for expressing their views. How else can we level up? Taking back control should not mean centralising. It should mean decentralising, with more local news content.

Soon after becoming Mayor, I started this weekly column in The Journal and The Chronicle. Without strong local papers, there are few opportunities to speak directly to the residents of the North of Tyne – the people who elected me. It has played a big role in raising awareness of the new Combined Authority, the jobs we’ve created, and the difference we’re making to people’s lives.

A month or so ago, Reach plc, which owns the Chronicle, The Journal and the Sunday Sun, announced 550 redundancies. At least 14 jobs will go in the Newcastle team. We’ll see more generic stories copied and pasted from elsewhere, instead of articles about our region. I wrote to the national CEO objecting. I received a very polite reply, saying it’s happening, our shareholders’ interests must be protected. Yet the journalists on The Chronicle and The Journal point out that Reach made £150 million profit last year.

News has always been biased. I’m a Labour elected Mayor in a country where 80% of the press is owned by a handful of non-taxpaying billionaires, who support the Conservative Party. If we value our democracy we must stand up for an independent press with local content. And we need the BBC – which we pay for – to stand up to government interference. Do we want to get to a situation where the only source of news is Facebook, controlled by another billionaire who avoids paying UK tax?

Published

Education for Children not Government

“Politicians are terrified of U-turns. They look indecisive” I wrote two months ago.

The sound of screeching tyres accompanied last week’s handbrake turn. Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson were adamant that Ofqual’s algorithm was “robust”. Until they suddenly declared it was all Ofqual’s fault. I wonder what grade our school leavers, parents and teachers would give this indecisive government.

This fiasco started in March. Ministers gave an explicit instruction that the number one priority was to avoid “grade inflation”. That’s why the algorithm worked the way it did.

The result? Kids from state schools in poor areas were downgraded. Not one pupil from Eton had their results downgraded. Because BAME communities are disproportionately poor, Ofqual’s model hammered black pupils’ results. This is not abstract. If you’re from a poor background, downgraded results can tank your future. These kids don’t have the connections and financial support to find an alternative way onto the career ladder. You don’t see kids from poor areas taking unpaid internships. So much for levelling up.

There is more to this than simple incompetence. The government’s policy-making is based on an exam system designed for the wrong purpose.

Many educators now refer to the “tyranny of testing”. A culture of relentless exams, spurious league tables and artificial competition between schools. Schools pressured to become exam-factories. The typical English child undergoes more than 70 tests in a school career. Way more than the rest of the industrial world.

When I ask employers how do they choose one young person over another, the answers are always the same. A youngster who can make eye contact in an interview. Who comes across as confident. Who demonstrates independent thought.

So why have exams at all? The medieval Chinese civil service introduced them to separate nepotism from competence. The British Empire needed a cohort of educated chaps to administer everywhere from Canada to India. Standardised handwriting and quick mental arithmetic were essential. It even allowed for a degree of social mobility. As long as you knew the LBW rule.

Standardised testing, then, is not a form of education. It is a form of selection. So we can rank young people, and say who is more worthy of advancement. Is it really that far from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where alphas have a different life trajectory from deltas?

Exams do have a benefit when they are diagnostic. They’re fast and efficient ways of telling a teacher what the gaps are in a student’s knowledge. Like any diagnosis, it must be followed up with treatment. Researcher John Hattie found that exams at the start of a course produce much better education than testing students at the end. By then it’s too late to do anything about it. Check out his Ted Talk on YouTube: Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful?

Education should focus on raising ability, not ranking kids and schools against each other. Competitive education misses the point. How many jobs in a workplace are competitive? Sharing your work with your colleagues good practice. What use is a footballer who can’t pass the ball to a teammate?

John Hattie did a massive study of different education polices. The policy that made the most difference to educational outcomes? Supporting teachers to work together collaboratively. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Skilled professionals, working together, is the bedrock of all progress. This is the foundation of the North of Tyne Joint School Improvement strategy.

Our Education Challenge is going through the Department for Education right now. We’re seeking £10 million a year to improve our kids’ education. We want to raise professional standards by supporting teachers and schools, not pitting them against each other. We’ll be able to put resources into supporting families to get kids “school ready”. We’ll look after their mental wellbeing throughout their school years, giving everyone immediate access to counselling.

Teachers want to do more than “teach to the test”. It’s about time education served the needs of our children, not our government.

First published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 24th Aug 2020.

Get on top of the Virus

t was announced last week that we’re officially in a recession. In other news, the Pope is a Catholic.

More than a million and a half people have signed-on in the past few months. Many more don’t claim. I spoke to one lad, perhaps in his late thirties. “I didn’t bother signing on,” he told me, “There’s no point. I’ve got savings.”

He’s done everything right – worked hard, been careful with his money, saved up. He’s a driver, taking what work he can, part-time, on reduced hours. His lifetime’s savings are evaporating.

The idea that we will see a V-shaped recovery is optimistic. That would mean recovering at the same rate as it took to crash. But why is a virus tanking the economy? Our annual winter flu crisis doesn’t.

To stop the virus, we have to change the way we work. Fewer people allowed in a building. Goods handled in a different way. Individual tasks taking longer. Whole employment sectors closed down. Because we don’t know who has the virus, and who doesn’t.

A recovery depends on an effective track and trace system. Until we’re all confident we’re safe, we can’t end physical distancing.

On the 11th February, the SAGE meeting acknowledged that Public Health England did not have the track and trace capacity to cope with a pandemic. The existing system had worked for smaller outbreaks. There is a network of skilled professionals in every local area that do this work all the time. Call me obvious, but I would have funded extra capacity for those teams, already in place, on the ground.

What did the government do? Delayed three months before launching a contract tracing system on 28th May. In the mean time, the UK suffered one of the highest death rates in the world.

On the 12th April, the Health Secretary announced the new NHS app for contact tracing. You could download an app on your phone that would detect other people’s phones using Bluetooth. If you developed symptoms, those you’d been near would be notified. On the 24th April, we were told it would be ready in weeks. On the 28th April it would be ready by the middle of May. On the 4th May the app was piloted on the Isle of Wight. It would go national at the end of May.

Unfortunately, the app could only worked on 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Android phones. Undeterred, on the 18th May Downing Street announced that the NHS contact tracing app would be launched nationwide in the “coming weeks”.

In mid-June the inevitable U-turn came. After two wasted months, Government asked Apple and Google to take over the design of the Track and Trace app. This might be available by Christmas, but no promises. World beating? You decide.

So where are we now? If you test positive, you’re told over the phone to self-isolate. You’re asked who your contacts are. They are then told to isolate for 14 days.

According to ministers, only around 76% who test positive are successfully contacted by the national tracing system. On average, people give 2.5 contacts. This is clearly under-reporting. They might not even know who they were near in a queue or a shop. Of those contacts given, only around 52% are successfully contacted.

We have no data on whether people follow the instructions. Or if those told to isolate develop symptoms.

£10 billion has been allocated via private contracts to run test & trace nationally. It is clearly underperforming. Local public health teams are the experts. Government should fund local authorities to do the job properly.

There is growing evidence that people in the lowest-paid jobs are not cooperating. There are 5 million people working in the gig economy. The vast majority cannot work from home. If asked to self-isolate for 14 days, they can’t earn money to buy food or pay their bills. They might lose their jobs.

Government must give all workers the ability to self-isolate without losing pay.

The only way to recover the economy is to get on top of this virus. Keeping people safe and protecting the economy are two sides of the same coin.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 17.8.20 

Our Final Warning

Phew what a scorcher! Global temperatures are rising. We know that. What most people don’t realise is the urgency.

The United Nations IPCC says that to avoid severe climate breakdown, we must limit global heating to 1.5 degrees.

Mark Lynas details the effects in his new book: Our Final Warning.

We’re already at 1 degree. 2 degrees will see massive reductions in crop yields. It will see flooding and storms of Biblical proportions. The economic damage will dwarf the 2007 crash and the Covid-19 pandemic.

If we pass 3 degrees, we’ll see Southern Asia, the Mediterranean, and much of the US start to turn into a desert. We’ll see billions of people in Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East and Central America displaced. A collapse in global trade. Worldwide food shortages. The whole world engulfed in a refugee crisis.

The UN published that current climate agreements will result in global temperature increases of 3.2 degrees.

Business as usual is not an option.

The North of Tyne has already committed £24 million to a Green New Deal, creating jobs in offshore wind and low-carbon materials. We’re looking to set up a local carbon offset programme. We’ve allocated £2 million to retrain workers from polluting industries into the green economy. We’re working cross-regionally to develop a net-zero transport system. We’ll be net-zero organisation soon within years, not decades.

What does a Citizens Assembly add?

I saw a comment from someone committed to tackling climate change, who asked, “isn’t this an engineering problem?”

In March, the Chancellor announced £1bn for green transport. In the very next breath, he announced £27bn “for tarmac”. If he understood the climate reality, he’d have put £27bn into public transport.

A trade union tried to lobby me to support opening a new coal mine. I’ve heard MPs say “if we all just do a little bit” – use a bit less energy, eat a bit less meat – we can solve the problem. I’m not sure how “we all just do a little bit” of installing an offshore wind farm.

Life has a nasty habit of throwing up issues that don’t have a neat, self-contained solution. What if you’re a low-wage worker who has to drop the kids off to school on a rainy morning, before driving half an hour to work. Is it realistic to say, “cut down your emissions, buy a push-bike?”

So no, it’s not just an engineering problem. It’s a political problem, a social problem, and an economic problem.

Our original plan for an in-person Citizens Assembly was scuppered by lockdown. We’re now tendering for a company to run the Assembly for us, with an online component. Details are on our website. Closing date is 18th August.

We’ll recruit a random sample of fifty people. Different ages, jobs, educational background, gender, ethnicity, the works. In a normal consultation, people with strong views are always over-represented. That’s why people selected will get paid for their time – so they’re motivated to participate even if they don’t have strong views. Also so those without much money can afford the time to participate.

They spend perhaps thirty hours together. First, getting up to speed on the issues. The climate science, and the local options. Then deliberating on how it would affect their lives. The tradeoffs they would be willing to make. Might I consider changing the way I shop? Would I be up for participating in a community energy scheme? What are the barriers to me walking or cycling more? Is there a hybrid way to travel, perhaps with an e-scooter on the bus? If so, how much better would the bus service need to be?

The questions will be guided by an advisory panel. They’ll be local authority officers, academic experts, and stakeholders.

Once the Assembly is concluded, the North of Tyne cabinet will evaluate the results. The wisdom of crowds will show us what else we could do, beyond our Green New Deal. Here’s another way to look at a Citizens’ Assembly. It’s democracy. Our lives have got to change. Do we just tell people what to do, or involve them in decision making? I prefer talking to people. I usually learn something.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 10.8.20

The benefits of a happy workforce

In my late thirties I signed up for a fitness challenge. A load of my twenty-something martial arts friends joined in. To get maximum points, you had to do twenty pull-ups, one hundred sit-ups in two minutes, and run three miles in 18 minutes. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. It was certainly cheaper than buying a Porsche.

I could bang out the pull ups and sit ups. But I was more of a slow plodder, listen-to-a-podcast enjoy-the-scenery kind of runner. So I started training for speed. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my time down to the target.

So on a late September morning, rain coming down in stair rods, I psyched myself up. Four laps and a bit round Freeman Field. I had a GPS pacing watch (definitely cheaper than a Porsche) and off I set. First lap, hard work, but on course, rain cooling me down. Second lap finished, and I’m struggling. Heart pounding, legs getting heavy, but focused.

Into the third. Keeping the pace up on the long downhill, and turning onto the flat. And my body is saying stop. But resolve kicks in. I’m determined, and I push through the pain. And my heart beats in my ears and my legs give out and I stumble and I crash and slide headlong in the mud. And lie there on my back. In a puddle four inches deep, breathing like a steam engine.

And I was happy. I was happy because I knew I’d hit my limits. It wasn’t effort, or determination that let me down. It was that I’m human. And humans have limits. I’m not built like Haile Gebrselassie, and no amount of training was ever going make me run like him.

I grew up in a working class family in a rough part of Middlesbrough. My Dad was a shiftworker at ICI. It’s fair to say we didn’t have a lot of money, but there was never any doubt that there was enough to eat. I was fortunate enough that when I went to university in my twenties, tuition was free.

I’ve never been raped. Or racially abused. Or been trapped in an abusive relationship. I’ve never had drug or alcohol problems. I’ve never suffered from mental ill health. I’ve never had to struggle to find a job because I’ve been in prison. I’ve never seen my career suffer because I’ve had to take time off for cancer treatment. I’ve never had to choose between paying the bills and getting my kids a Christmas present.

Resilience is all about having a reserve of energy to call on. I can only imagine how exhausting it is to face life’s challenges when you’ve had to run three laps before the race even starts.

We’re entering a tough time. The world economy will slow. Unemployment here will rise. I’m not going to restate my views on the government’s handling of Covid. The truth is, we’ll all find our reserves being tested.

Some people talk of a competitive labour market. Survival of the fittest. A race to the bottom. No.

Because one place you shouldn’t be getting grief from is work. That’s why the North of Tyne has made Good Work our number one priority.

We’ll use public procurement to increase the quality of jobs here. Our Good Work Pledge requires employers to reward people fairly – paying the Real Living Wage. And no exploitative contracts. Good employers will develop a balanced workforce, with diversity. They’ll provide training so people can progress. They’ll work with trade unions. They’ll show social responsibility through positive environmental practices. And they’ll look after their workers’ wellbeing and mental health.

Wise employers know their workforce is their biggest asset. Look after your workers, and they’ll be more productive, more innovative, and more loyal. We will acknowledge good employers who look after their staff. And give other employers a leg up to match that standard.

Determination is a wonderful quality. But some of us are already running to stand still. We cannot go back to the economy we had before this crisis. No more stripping everything down to the lowest cost. We must rebuild for resilience.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20.7.20

A meal deal not for the masses

 A fortnight ago, Boris Johnson compared himself to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal turned round the economic collapse of the Great Depression. He created the first ever US state pensions and unemployment insurance. He promoted collective bargaining, improving wages and working conditions. The Public Works Administration built dams, bridges, schools and hospitals.

Last Wednesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak launched a flagship scheme to give us up to a tenner off a meal out. But only from Monday to Wednesday. Throughout August. Participating restaurants only. Terms and conditions apply.

Less of a New Deal, more of a Meal Deal.

A package of “up to” £30 billion should have given confidence. It hasn’t. In the past few days I’ve spoken to businesses, investment firms, journalists and economists. Underwhelmed doesn’t cover it.

First and foremost, “economic activity” will only recover once people feel safe. We need a working test system.

New Zealand implemented strict lockdowns and a rapid test, trace and isolate system. Since May they’ve been bobbing along at between 0 and 2 new cases per day. Weeks ago, they removed restrictions and returned to normal. Total death count, 22.

In the UK we had herd immunity. Then no herd immunity. The PM’s senior advisor driving across the country while he knew he was infected. VE day street parties with conga lines. The official government decision to suspend the contact tracing system way back in March. Then a half-baked scheme for a national app. Then another U-turn. Then a world-class system in place at the start of June. That isn’t yet operational, despite it now being the middle of July. Total death count, 45,000.

Look after your people, and the economy will look after itself. It’s the first duty of any government.

Now, the OECD is warning that UK unemployment will hit 4 million this year. There was nothing in Wednesday’s announcement for High Streets. Yet last week we’ve seen Boots and John Lewis announce 5000 job losses. Nothing for manufacturing, despite 12,000 job cuts in aviation.

North East councils face a £272 million black hole in their budgets. It’s the same across the country. In May, government said “do what you need to tackle the crisis. We’ll pay for any costs.” Government is now refusing to honour that promise. Unless they do, there’ll be emergency budgets, services cut, and thousands more job losses. Replacing permanent jobs with six-month Kickstart schemes is bad economics.

What should the Chancellor have done?

First, target spending into the productive economy. Wednesday’s announcement showed no awareness of what our regional economies need.

We submitted a plan for £100 million investment in the offshore and renewables industry. The Chancellor could have said, “We’ve left the EU. We’ll require that all offshore wind in UK waters must have 50% British content.”

We have a whole industry along the Tyne and in the North East that can supply it. The industry would scrabble to invest here. It would create thousands of high quality jobs. It would cement the North East as a world-leader in renewable energy. It would pave the way for a Just Transition from fossil fuels into clean energy. It would pay for itself.

Cutting Stamp Duty is a wasteful way of encouraging house building. Seven out of eight house buyers are moving in a chain. Only one in eight moves to a new build.

There are nine Metro Mayors. The Chancellor could have said, “Here’s £500 million each. Build 5000 affordable, eco-homes. You can sell them on, rent them as council houses, either way, it pays for itself.” It would tackle the housing crisis, homelessness, climate change and create skilled jobs.

Newcastle has nearly 60,000 students. Overseas students, especially from the Far East, won’t be coming here until we get Covid-19 under control. The Chancellor could have said, “I’ll fund all university tuition fees for all UK students who start this September or next.”

It would fund our universities by getting them to do what they’re there for. And skill up our workforce with high quality education.

We needed a Green New Deal. Instead, we got a Meal Deal.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 13.7.21

Devolution is about Democracy

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

“Please sir , I want some more”.

“Please sir, I want some more”.

Oliver Twist sums up the relationship between central government and the North. There’s a dependency on grants from Westminster, often tied in with the electoral cycle. Restrictions come from Whitehall on to how to spend it, with priorities optimised for the Home Counties.

Oliver needed the handouts because the playing field was tilted against him. His poor start gave him no chance of prospering. Eventually, he runs away to seek his fortune – in London.

The North East’s industrial base had grown organically over two centuries. Jobs and hard work gave us the belief that our kids would be better off than we were. Then in a decade we saw the closure of shipyards, steel plants, wagon works and pits. Government decided the profits from the City finance firms could replace manufacturing.

The North East still has a manufacturing base. Nissan is the most productive car plant in Europe. Our problem isn’t anything to do with work ethic. Like poor Oliver, our problem is that we’ve not had the investment we need. We can’t close the gap from local taxation. Our business rates tax base is £300 per person. In London, it’s £940. But there are alternatives to local tax.

A few months ago, our work with Verisure brought a thousand jobs to the North of Tyne. I’ve just signed off on bringing another firm here, with hundreds more jobs. There’s more in the pipeline. We’re doing the best we can with the tools available. But we need better tools. We need Fiscal Devolution – power over how we raise and spend money.

First, Invest To Save. Our taxes already pay for the effects of obesity, mental ill health, poor air quality and crime. All the evidence confirms that better housing, youth services, transport and careers support save a fortune in the long run. But there’s no mechanism to fund them, except “Please sir, I want some more.”

If government allows us to reinvest the savings we make, we can create jobs, improve productivity, and quality of life.

Second, Regional Wealth Investment. There are hundreds of sound business propositions in the North of Tyne that would create jobs and pay taxes. But they stall because there isn’t the investment. One business leader told me last week, “All the investment capital goes to the capital.” Why invest in a start-up company in Tyneside when you can invest in property speculation in London?

Let Combined Authorities step in and fix this. Allow us to get firms off the ground. Every investment creates jobs, raises tax, and ties into our industrial strategy. Real interest rates are negative. Allow us to borrow at the same rate as central government for a regional wealth fund. Recyclable loans and taking equity shares makes it self-funding.

Third, Land Value Uplift. Public investment in Metro extensions and SuperBus routes increase land value. With the power to capture a share of the increase, we could fund the investments now.

None of this means more taxes for citizens – it’s self-funding.

Shy bairns get nowt. I’ve been lobbying hard for more powers. If it wasn’t for the new Zoom world we live in, I wouldn’t have seen my family for the past few weeks. I’d never have been off the train to London. I’ve spoken to ministers, Secretaries of State, the Chancellor and the PM.

Credit where credit’s due. I’m deeply critical of the government on many issues, but on devolution, they’re playing ball. Whenever I can work cross-party to get a better deal for the people of the North East, I do.

The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world. Of the £143 billion tax raised in the North, ninety five per cent gets transferred to Westminster. Later this year, government will publish the Devolution White Paper. Let’s hope they devolve the tools we need to make our regional economy work for us.

We have to get beyond Oliver Twist.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 29.6.20

Hunger in the UK

Politicians are terrified of U-turns.  They look indecisive.  

 200,000 kids have had to skip meals because their family couldn’t afford enough food during lockdown.  Yet thanks to England footballer Marcus Rashford, 1.3 million kids will now get fed this summer.  When the cupboards are bare, that £15-a-week voucher will stop kids becoming malnourished.   

For the record, I won’t berate the government for doing what is obviously the right thing.  As economist John Maynard Keyes used to say, “When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?” 

But what new information came to light?  Only 24 hours earlier, Boris & the No 10 team had publicly rejected the proposal.  They sent out ministers to do the media rounds backing their decision.  

 South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck lined up 50 MPs to sign a cross-party letter pressing the government to take action.  The prospect of Marcus Rashford’s campaign coinciding with a backbench rebellion forced the U-turn.   

This wasn’t a rational re-evaluation of the facts.  It was political and public pressure.   

So how is government deciding its policy?  If it’s responding to social media likes, can we expect a minister for dogs that look like celebrities?   

We have to end this back of a fag packet approach to food insecurity.

  Hunger is the everyday reality for many families in the UK. 

A 2017 report by the Food Foundation showed 11% of kids in the UK live in a “severely food insecure household”.  This is by far the worst situation in Europe.  The UK is put to shame by much poorer countries in Eastern Europe.  Even Greece, with all its economic woes, has only 2% of kids in food insecurity.   

The government continues to see hunger and food security as an “overseas issue.” Not my words, but the damning assessment of the January 2019 House of Commons Environmental Committee.  The government is failing to meet the UN’s International Sustainable Development Goals on hunger. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on household finances.  Research by the Food Foundation shows food insecurity in households with children has doubled since last year.

 Sustain, the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, estimates there are now 8.4 million people in the UK struggling to get enough to eat. Behind this grim statistic, food insecurity means kids going to school malnourished and unable to focus on their lessons. Parents are going without food so their children can eat. In work poverty means half of all food bank aid goes to working households.  The unemployed, older, disabled and BAME people are also particularly at risk. 

We need to treat food poverty as a public health emergency.  It causes under-nutrition and obesity in children.  The cheapest foods are nutrient poor but calorie-rich. This has life-long health consequences. 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Investing to stop food poverty yields huge savings down the line. Obesity related illness costs the NHS over £16 billion a year.  Wider costs, including time off work, will cost the UK £50 billion a year by 2050.  These are the government’s own figures, from Public Health England.

  There is a way to address this, at least locally.  In Newcastle, 30% of schoolchildren are on free school meals.  We’re already tackling in-work poverty through our Good Work Pledge. When workers are paid decent wages they can afford to feed their families.  No one should need the indignity of charity to put food on the table.  Frankly, government should just adopt our Pledge and make it national policy. 

Later this year the Devolution White Paper will be published.  Current government policy is exclusively focussed on growth.  But that growth is leaving too many people behind.   

Giving the North of Tyne the powers and funding to tackle poverty will boost productivity and improve educational attainment.  It will save Treasury a fortune down the line. Marcus Rashford brought the harsh reality of hunger in the UK to our attention. We must now tackle the root cause.  We must unlock children and families from poverty.


Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.6.20

Culture for the Soul

Culture is the sum total of how we express ourselves as humans. Culture is our collective soul.

For some it’s theatre, museums, art galleries, opera. For others, a live music gig, a beer festival or a home game.

I don’t see culture as a “sector”, an opportunity for economic growth. We can live in concrete blocks and eat nutrient paste to sustain our bodies. But we need architecture and cuisine to sustain our souls. Enriching our lives is an end in itself.

In the North East, we’ve got wealth of theatres, exhibition spaces and venues. This month you could have expected to see The Mousetrap at the Theatre Royal. Listened to an amazing range of music styles at the Sage. Attended the Viking exhibition at the Bailiffgate in Alnwick. Delved into the Tynemouth market at the weekend. There would have been football at St James’s and even (whisper it…) at the Stadium of Light. None of this happened. We don’t know when they will reopen, or if they will ever return to the way it was before the virus struck.

We do know that people working in culture are poorly paid. For every Premiership footballer, Hollywood star or best selling author, there are thousands who live hand to mouth.

So, what is going to happen?

Real cultural diversity comes from the interchange of ideas, experiences and influences. We should develop our local culture, rather than thinking that everyone wants generic, cookie-cutter events.

I hope I’m not coming over too Royston Vasey – ‘this is local festival for local people…’. But look at the difference the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe have made to that city. All the performers who’ve honed their skills and got their break there. Or the Whitby Goth Weekend, which celebrates a sub-culture that connects people, and supports the local economy.

A week-long festival, or even a single day event, can be all year in the planning. The Great North Run employs a full-time team year round. These are meaningful jobs with a great sense of purpose.

Speaking of Royston Vasey, The League of Gentlemen has been dropped by Netflix. There’s been a rush by broadcasters and streaming services to distance themselves from anything that smacks of racism, or cultural appropriation. Quite right too. But blanket bans miss the point. The League of Gentlemen was never meant to be a cosy, family sitcom, like Terry and June, or My Family. It was deliberately intended to be dark – to shock and offend – as well as being clever and funny.

It’s a delicate balance. We have to avoid propagating bigoted views. But there’s still a place for the sort of humour that makes you wince at the same time as laughing. Good art should challenge our perceptions of the world.

Would we ban The Merchant of Venice because of the sixteenth century anti-Semitic sentiments? Would we ban the Old Testament for its homophobia? Should we edit Mein Kampf to make it less offensive? Airbrushing history is to pretend that the world never thought like that. A better alternative is to explain why it’s offensive. We should not dodge these uncomfortable debates around racism, we should win them.

HBO has temporarily taken down Gone With The Wind. For a story set on a cotton plantation, it’s effectively blind to the slavery and racial oppression. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, was the first African-American to win an Oscar. Yet she was not allowed to sit with her fellow stars at the Oscars ceremony, because of the segregation at the time. HBO said, ” it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

Back to Royston Vasey, (local funding for local people…). My Cabinet and I have allocated £8.4m for our culture and events strategy. We’ll need to revisit it post-COVID. With people flying less, domestic tourism will increase. One component is to bring major events, like the Rugby Magic Weekend, to St James’ Park. A key plank is developing home-grown festivals, to showcase local talent, local people, and local small businesses. Rooting in the landscape, history and culture of our region creates a virtuous circle. It creates an ecosystem for our cultural sector. It gives people a chance to develop their careers here, in our region. It keeps money in our local economy. And best of all, with a profusion of great events – food, literary, music, sport, community – the lot – it will make this a better, more fun place to live.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 15.6.20

Vandalism by Chequebook

I’m sure health and safety officials would have a lot to say – I doubt anyone completed a risk assessment form.  But the toppling of the Edward Colston statue looked peaceful.  And remarkably well organised.  I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen no reports that anyone got hurt.  No looting, no arson.  No riot.  I have seen reports that the police handled the matter with great tact and sensitivity – well done Avon & Somerset Constabulary.  

Edward Colston oversaw the kidnap and enslavement of around 84,000 people, including 12,000 children.  19,000 died in the crossings from Africa to the Americas.  Their bodies were dumped into the water, unmarked, unrecorded.  For years campaigners have tried to get a plaque on the statue to state this truth.  Richard Eddy, a local Tory councillor objected to the idea of a new plaque, and said he would not condemn anyone who vandalised it.  The protesters who pulled it down are now being criticised for taking non-violent direct action.  

So what’s the criticism based on?  It’s that “they” didn’t play by “our” rules.  The correct, establishment, way to commit vandalism is with lawyers and a cheque book.  And do it properly.  Underfund and privatise the NHS.  Oppose laws that require landlords to maintain houses fit for human habitation.  Slash and burn your way through the economy, so literally millions of people need foodbanks.  Reverse eco legislation for housing.  Strangle our public services with austerity while letting tax dodgers get away scot-free.  Legalise fracking.  Pump megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Do the vandalism properly, and you might get rewarded in the honours list. 

Black lives Matter

 Why is it that when someone supports #BlackLivesMatter, someone replies, “All lives matter!”


If someone told you, “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer,” you wouldn’t reply, “Well some people get prostate cancer!”


The protests in America are the confluence of three recent killings of black citizens by US Law Enforcement Officers.


On 25th February this year, 25-year-old electrician Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging as usual. Two men in a pickup truck drew guns on him. One shot him in the chest with a shotgun, Mr Arbery tried to grab the gun, and was shot twice more and killed.


Police did not arrest the killers. They relied on the killers’ evidence, and who said they “had a gut feeling” he must have been a burglar. The prosecutor’s office advised it was self-defence because Arbery had refused to lie down on the ground when challenged. One of the killers previously worked as an investigator in the prosecutor’s office. Later video evidence and a witness reports show the killers standing over Mr Arbery’s dying body saying “Fucking n**ger.”

On the 13th of March, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot dead while sleeping in her apartment. Police suspected there were drugs in her house, and without announcing themselves, tried to smash down her door in a dawn raid. Her boyfriend thought it was a home invasion, grabbed a gun, and shot at the door. The police fired 20 shots. Eight bullets hit Ms Taylor, killing her immediately. The police found no drugs. She was an emergency medical technician, a cross between an ambulance driver and a paramedic. She was also African-American. No charges were brought against her killers at the time.


On 25th May, 46-year-old George Floyd bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 note. It’s unknown if he knew it was a forgery. Police arrested & cuffed him, and made him lie face down in the street. Police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Mr Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes. Mr Floyd begged for his life, telling officers “I can’t breathe,” at least sixteen times before he was killed.
Initial police reports claimed he was resisting arrest. Video footage from multiple eye witnesses show Mr Floyd was calm and not resisting.


For each of these three killings there are hundreds of unreported beatings and abuses of power.


This week I saw a Newcastle City Council Facebook post in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. It attracted hundreds of comments.
Many criticised the council’s stance, saying “what about Lee Rigby?”
Lee Rigby was a 25-year-old soldier in the Royal Fusiliers, who supported Help for Heroes. In 2013 he was run down then brutally murdered by two men on his way back to barracks. It was a deliberate and premeditated attack.


Unarmed police were first at the scene, then armed police. When the killers charged at them, police opened fire, wounding them. The killers were charged, prosecuted, and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 45 years.


Lee Rigby’s life mattered. The authorities behaved as if it did, and acted swiftly to uphold the law. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd died because those in authority didn’t believe black lives matter.
It’s about power, intertwined with a long, long history of racism. When the authorities who are supposed to protect you are the same people who are killing you, people are right to be angry. They are right to protest.
In the coverage of the protests, black CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested by police officers live on television, despite asking the police where he should move. Just one block away, the police told white CNN reporter Josh Campbell, “Ok, you’re good.”

So if you hear someone say, “All lives matter,” ask them to think for a moment. Imagine you’re black. You’ve lived with racism all your life. You see racist graffiti every day. The authorities treat you with suspicion. You have to try that bit harder to succeed. You see black people being killed by white police. And then when you post, “Black lives matter,” someone says “All lives matter!” How would you feel?

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.6.20

The Good, the Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It’s not often that Spaghetti Western titles provide a framework for economic analysis. But this sums up the choices facing the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

We went into this crisis with a quarter of our people getting paid less than they need to live on, a third of our kids in poverty, and our planet facing ecological catastrophe within a generation.

Now here’s the rub. How do we make sure that the recovery is about wellbeing and sustainable green growth that works for everybody?

There’s stark choices to make in deciding how we rebuild.

Let’s start with the Ugly.

A full-on shock doctrine combining a more authoritarian state with uncontrolled corporate capitalism. The government tried making some carers and NHS staff pay twice to use the NHS, just because it’s popular to blame immigrants.

Cowboy economics assumes infinite resources. When one area is used up, move on to another to exploit. When small companies go the wall, corporate raiders hoover-up their assets at cut prices. Outsourcing on steroids. The approach of Trump’s America.

Crippling austerity will be used to “pay for” the emergency response to the pandemic. The Ugly subordinates everything to the “free-market” – which is anything but free. Procurement rules are thrown out so contracts go to close contacts. This approach has led to the highest death rate in Europe. Working people are just cannon-fodder for corporate machines.

Economic growth is encouraged by “supply side economics”. Or more accurately, letting the mega rich avoid taxes. In just one example, Virgin have taken £2 billion in NHS contracts and not paid a penny in corporation tax. They’ve sued the NHS for £2 million when they didn’t get the deal they wanted, and walked away from the East Coast Mainline rather than pay what they owed. Registered in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, the Virgin group takes the wealth created by working people to pay for private islands.

The Ugly is not pro-business, it’s pro-billionaire. Take this approach, and we’ll see a second spike followed by a generation of talent squandered through rocketing youth unemployment, in work poverty, and rising crime.

The Bad.

There’s a conflict amongst the establishment. The Financial Times is calling for a “more sustainable and inclusive form of capitalism.” Many in Treasury recognise the need for “fiscal stimulus”.

The default approach is to kick-start the economy by spending billions on concrete and tarmac. More road widening, roundabout upgrades, and shiny new schools and hospitals. Funded by quantitative easing, government borrowing, and “departmental savings”. We’ve been here before with PFI. Lovely buildings, but “departmental savings” mean we can’t afford to pay the teachers and health professionals we need to work in them.

It assumes that any spending in the economy will reach everyone equally. That wealth “trickles down”.

It doesn’t, and it never has. Wealth trickles up. That’s what interest is – those with money to spare take interest from those too poor to make ends meet. It widens the wealth gap. And it costs us all a fortune in poor health, poor education, and innovative small firms struggling to get the funds they need to grow.

Whitehall is already talking about pay freezes for public sector workers and turning a blind eye to the bankruptcy councils are facing.

The Good.

The Good means putting local economies front and centre. Sometimes called Community Wealth Building, it’s a set of place-based policies that work together to make sure that we all earn more and spend more locally.

It means shortening supply chains so we build here. It means the public sector spending its money with local firms who pay the Real Living Wage and have sustainable operating models. It means funding training for workers to take new jobs in new industries.

It means abandoning the carrot-and-stick approach to unemployment, instead providing tailored help, whether that’s digital skills training or mental health support.

It means new ways of supporting innovation, not with tax breaks, but with public ownership and partnership investment in our start-ups. New approaches to house building that supports local firms and ownership, such as community land trusts. It means banks owned by local communities.

And it works. The Spanish Basque country rejected the free market fundamentalism. Its place-based economics has given an otherwise poor region a per capita income way above the EU average and an acclaimed environmental and wellbeing rating. It’s being rolled out in the UK by the Welsh government, and councils including Preston, North Ayrshire, and Newham. And The North of Tyne.

Post-1945 we faced a choice. Go back to the depression and slums of the 1930s. Or go forward, build the NHS, public housing and welfare state. The Bad and The Ugly won’t level us up. Only The Good will.

(Published in The Chronicle and The Journal on 1st June 20)

Government by Toddler

Getting dressed after the shower, Leon sidles up to me, “Daddy my cwayon has bwoke.” The boys were three and one at the time.

“Oh dear, how’d you do that, son?”

“It bwoke on the wall.”

A dash downstairs found Nelson in full Neolithic cave-art mode. Navy blue Crayloa on magnolia emulsion. Celtic swirls decorating the wall on the stairs.

Crayons confiscated, boys sternly told of the seriousness of their actions. Then a courtroom drama in which Nelson introduces the plot twist, “No! I not naughty, you naughty!”

That was ten years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Toddlers are cute. Nature has programmed us to think so.

Dominic Cummings is not a toddler. Neither are cabinet ministers. They have the power to fine you if you break the lockdown. They can decide to charge you for using the NHS. They also have the codes to Britain’s nuclear arsenal. They are millionaires.

The scandal isn’t that a career psychopath broke the rules (David Cameron’s description of Cummings). The scandal is that the entire cabinet is being wheeled out to defend him. Every other public official caught breaking the law had to resign for potentially spreading a fatal disease.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Leader of the House Jacob Rees Mogg, and Foreign Sec and deputy PM Dominic Raab among them. All following the no 10 script.

In two hours they all used the words “care” and “child” in their tweets. Almost as if a single press officer had written them. (Then dutifully retweeted by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.)

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s was the most toddleresque – accusing people of “trying to score political points” – I not naughty, you naughty!

It’s total bull, of course. Cummings doesn’t think rules apply to him. He thinks everyone else is too stupid to have an opinion. He says so in his blog. Worse still, their story isn’t straight. Eye witnesses and the police have disproven them. Toddler excuses and toddler lies.

The science of psychology has proven that toddlers have no ‘theory of mind’. Simply, they are not capable of realising that we might have different beliefs and opinions from them. We forgive toddlers because we know they will grow up.

With the Cabinet, we all knew they were lying. They knew they were lying. Why did they think they could get away with it? We’ve seen a catalogue of errors and lies about the handling of this crisis. When we look at the catalogue of failures we can see why. The worst death rate in Europe. Bungled PPE deliveries. Testing regimes not in place. Deciding to quarantine air passengers eight weeks after imposing a lockdown. We been misled on PPE. On testing. On statistics. On what the science said. So why stop there? In for a penny, in for a pound. After all, it worked when they deceived the Queen on proroguing Parliament.

They no longer tell you what’s true. They tell you what’s plausible. Most people think propaganda is about spin & exaggeration. It often was. But emboldened by Trump, some realised that a complete fiction was more effective. Sure, some serious people would never believe you again. But they’d never vote for you anyway.

Hannah Arendt, philosopher who escaped from Nazi Germany, wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exist.”

Far better to make it a slanging match. To destroy truth altogether. When people start thinking everybody lies, they’ll go along with the loudest voice or the funniest clown.

There’s a platitude in politics that we’re all trying to do good, just we have different views of how to get there. It’s not really true – there are many different visions of the world we want to see. Grown-up politicians are comfortable debating it, based on evidence and values.

Not all the Tories are toddlers. I deal with some who, in a private conversation, will admit things are not going as planned. It’s much less adversarial than you might think. Being in government is hard work. I approach these meetings trying to find solutions, and they’re glad of a break from conflict. There’s not many of them left, mind. Most of the dissenting voices were sacked in BJ’s temper tantrum last August.

I’m writing this on Sunday morning. By the time it’s published, Cummings may have been axed. There’s normally no hesitation in throwing an advisor or two under the bus to save a PM or minister’s hide. So either DC has some serious dirt on BJ’s inner circle, or they’re terrified that one admission of failure will lead to a torrent.

Here’s a challenge to any of our North East Conservative politicians. Show us you’re grown-ups. Tell the truth. Call out your cabinet ministers who lied and wriggled to defend Cummings. Ask for a public apology. Show us there’s an alternative to government by toddler.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25.5.20

Promoted by Richard Williams on behalf of Jamie Driscoll both at Labour North, Kings Manor, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6PA.