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