Give us the tools to generate wealth and remove inequality and we’ll be soaring once more

The richest place in the country? Today it’s Kensington and Chelsea in London. But 150 years ago Newcastle was in with a shout.

Our mineral wealth was renowned. The home of the locomotive, the birthplace of the railways, supplier of ships to the world.  The place where renewable energy, turbine power and the electric light were invented. For two centuries the North East fuelled the industrial revolution and made Britain the workshop of the world. Just a hundred years ago, we were wealthier, per person, than the South East, South West, Midlands or Yorkshire.

So what went wrong?

Well the Government stopped investing in the North East. In businesses, in infrastructure, in people. The North East’s wealth plummeted from 93% of the UK average in 1981 to 73% by 2017. No other English region has declined so fast.

The answers to the economic problems of the North East lie in generating more wealth here. Do that and we reduce health inequality and skills inequality. Everyone benefits. Everyone gets richer.

We do that with more devolution.

That’s the case I made in the House of Lords last week with the 2070 commission.

Chaired by Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, it looks at how we should change things over the next 50 years, not just the next 5. Successful regional development takes longer than one political cycle. Longer than one Prime Minister. Certainly longer than a lettuce.

It requires the region to be in driving seat, not the Government in Westminster.

That’s also the message of the Gordon Brown constitutional commission that gets launched on Monday.  Gordon asked me to keep the details quiet until it’s launched, but it covers two broad themes: restoring trust in politics, and boosting regional wealth.  That’s two sides of the same coin. 

Replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate of the nations and regions will grab the headlines.  But it includes solid proposals to clean up politics. Banning second jobs for MPs. Letting citizens juries adjudicate on political corruption instead of political insiders.  That’s real people power.

I worked with Gordon and his team on the economic proposals in the report. How we generate wealth in places like the North East. How we make sure that wealth finds its way into the pockets of working people here and not billionaires’ accounts offshore.

That means powers to help everyone earn more. Small businesses, self-employed people, full-time workers, part-time workers. It means better child-care provision. It means devolving the careers service and Job Centres, so the whole system works to help people get better jobs, and not punish them for being unemployed. It means giving us the tools to boost our green industries.

Giving more powers and money to the regions produces better results. We’ve shown that over the last 3 and half years at the North of Tyne.

We took control of adult education 2 years ago. Training for chefs, and welders, and computer skills for adults. Right in the middle of the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine a worse time to take on something new. Yet we did it and got more bang for our buck. Before we controlled it there were  21,885 enrolments on a course per year.  Last year we had  32,769 – a 50% increase. For the same budget. With 96% of people who enrolled completing their course and getting a qualification.

A 50% increase in value for money.

Imagine what we could do with transport, housing, and infrastructure. Cutting fares and bringing in integrated ticketing so you can take a bike, bus and metro with a single pass for the entire journey. Retrofitting homes, cutting carbon emissions, and bringing down energy bills so that everyone has a warm home to live in. Seeing new light rail links built in years instead of decades.

Doing all of this from a single pot of money. Trusting us to spend it well.

Trying to do it from 280 miles away just doesn’t work anymore. If it ever did. What seemed like a good idea thought up by a minister or civil servant in Whitehall struggles when it makes contact with the ground.

The North East is a wonderful place to live. The people are friendly and hard working. The landscape is beautiful, our heritage impressive. We have world-leading industries.

Give us the tools to generate wealth and remove inequality and we’ll be soaring once more.