It’s all about the power
Last Monday I was in Manchester when the Tory Party conference was in town. I haven’t crossed the floor, it was a meeting of the M9. It sounds like something from a Bond film. Whenever we meet I think of SPECTRE – me and the other 8 Metro Mayors sitting round a huge table, working out the best way to get central government to give powers and funding back to England’s regions. Sadiq Khan stroking a white cat. Well, maybe not that bit.
A fortnight ago the Prime Minister announced the North of Tyne would get additional devolved powers. We’ve been chasing up civil servants to find out how and when, and it’s fair to say the PM’s team is making up policy on the hoof. Government at the moment is more Austin Powers than James Bond. We were offered a sketchy deal about as clear as the government’s plan for solving the Northern Ireland border. But our civil servants have been diligent, and the political unity from the mayors is impressive. Neither Labour nor Tory Mayor was happy with the initial offer, and collectively as the M9 we have approached the government with a request for a clear devolution framework: a process that would see significant powers and budgets devolved to the North of Tyne, which we could draw-down when we are ready to manage them. That’s the power of having directly-elected leaders with a clear focus on their own regions. If we’re to get beyond divisive politics as a country, devolution has to play its part. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have it. We should too.
On a positive note, the lobbying to get democratic control of the Shared Prosperity Fund seems to be paying off. Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for local government, confirmed that I would get direct control of the money that will replace EU funding when – or if – Brexit happens. Whether Leaver or Remainer, we can all agree that direct control of our funding is better for our area. Regional control would enable us to really power up the North.
What could I do with these powers? Sort our public transport for one thing. Over the last thirty years, since bus deregulation under the Thatcher government, bus patronage has dropped in the North East by half. In the same time period, London’s bus use has doubled. Why? Because Transport for London was never deregulated. With the power to regulate the bus system we can get joined up ticketing, like London has. Just rock-up, swipe on with your debit card, and use the Metro or the bus, and it automatically charges you the best fare. You don’t even need a ticket, which speeds up journey times.
I’d like to go further – to integrate all transport into a single app, so you can hire an electric bike at Metro stations, and upgrade the bus fleet to take your folding bike on with you. If you want to go away for the weekend, you could hire a car from a car club and pick it up where you live. There’s too much focus and spending on road improvement – the best solution to our air quality and climate crisis is to think about moving people around instead of cars.
Imagine if public transport and electric bike infrastructure was so good that it was quicker than driving. Imagine if you could save the cost of your car insurance, fuel, servicing and road tax. Not to mention the depreciation on your car. I’m working to bring these powers here, and the noises coming out of government are positive. The good news is, it doesn’t require primary legislation – an Act of Parliament – we can have the powers transferred by ministerial order. Whether these ministers will be around long enough to deliver is a different matter. Mind you, if we get a Labour government, we’ll get all the investment we need in public transport.
This article was first published in The Journal and The Newcastle Evening Chronicle on Monday 7th October 2019.