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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