One year as Mayor

A year ago on Thursday our people elected me Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority.  I knew that building a new organisation would be a challenge.  On my first day, cameras & film crews outnumbered the staff.  But I had no idea what a rollercoaster year it would be.  

In my acceptance speech, I spoke about the chaos our economy faced.  I had no inkling of a pandemic.  But July heralded a new Prime Minister, after the Conservatives ditched Theresa May.  In September, the government signalled its intent to accelerate devolution.  With less than half my team in place, we had to move fast to draw up new plans.  In October we faced a Brexit crisis, the possibility of a cliff edge, and all the behind the scenes planning.  December brought the disruption of a snap General Election.  Those outside politics might not realise that we’re prevented from making announcements or spending commitments during an election period.  Then, just as we were ramping up our investment programme, we’ve been hit by a pandemic the like of which has not been seen for a century.  And a shortage of pasta and loo rolls (which I don’t claim to have predicted either!). 

I’m a huge advocate of devolution.  At present, the North of Tyne’s budgets and powers are a fraction of those of other cities.  Despite this, I’m determined that we make people’s lives better, in ways that matter to them.  And despite this extraordinary year, we’ve made a cracking start.   

On my first day of office, as promised, I declared a Climate Emergency.  I said we’d provide world-class environmental education, and we’re rolling out a programme for a UN-accredited climate change teacher in every school in the region.  I said I’d convene a Climate Change Citizens’ Assembly, and that’s ready to go the minute the Coronavirus restrictions are lifted.  We make better policy when we involve our citizens in decision making.  

I said I’d develop a Green Industrial revolution.  We’ve allocated £24 million to create jobs in offshore renewable energy and low carbon innovation.  This must be a Just Transition, where our workers’ security is paramount.  So we’ve established a special £2 million fund for workers to retrain for green jobs.  

We’re investing £10 million in the region’s digital economy.  What does that mean?  Everything from helping smaller firms ‘go digital’ so they can be more productive, to tackling digital exclusion.  For example, providing Chrome books (and tech support!) for people who aren’t online.  As we saw with I, Daniel Blake, not everyone is part of the online revolution.  

I’ve worked to create jobs.  Verisure announced 1000 jobs after I and my North of Tyne team worked to bring them here.  Thousands more jobs are in the pipeline – although with the current situation, we can’t be complacent.  

Prosperity must extend to everybody.  Our programmes are helping the economically disadvantaged get skills, support and counselling.  People who’ve been away from work caring for family members, people struggling to pay their rents in social housing, and people from disadvantaged communities are all being helped.  All these programmes have the same underlying approach – treat people with dignity.  Help them don’t sanction them.  

All those workers we clap on a Thursday night must not be forgotten once this crisis passes.  I said I’d establish an employment charter, and we now have our Good Work Pledge.  Accredited employers pay the Real Living Wage on fair contracts, and Trade Union recognition is embedded.  We practice what we preach, North of Tyne is a Real Living Wage employer with a zero gender pay gap and flexible working.   

I’m proud of the team we’ve built at the North of Tyne.  None of this would have happened without skill, good humour and sheer hard work.  The credit must be shared by the entire staff and Cabinet.  Plus the staff and Cabinet Members from Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland Local Authorities.  

Now we’ve been hit by the Juggernaut of Covid-19 and the economic consequences that will follow.  I’ve put £5 million to support our Local Authorities to help those micro-businesses falling through the gaps of government support.  I’ve been lobbying government to protect our buses and Metro. 

There’s more happening – much more than one column can cover.  Work is underway on the People’s Bank, on the cooperative economy, on sustainable housing, and our Education Challenge.  

So log onto Mayor’s Question time this Thursday, 7th May, to hear more.  It’s free and open to all.  You can register a question in advance, and it’ll be a Facebook Live at 7pm.  

We will come out of this.  But we have to make sure the recovery is about more than a return to January 2020.  All of the challenges we faced with poverty, inequality, and of course climate change will all exist, and in most cases, will be compounded.  The road out of this will be long, and many of the problems will need years to fix. The United Nations Disaster Relief organisation uses the strap-line Build Back Better.  We can imagine a different world that is greener, cleaner and kinder.  That’s going to be my focus for Year 2. 

[A shorter version of this article was first published in The Chronicle and The Journal on Mon 4th May 2020]