Our people are the North’s true powerhouse

There’s a lack of trust between the people and power.

For decades, this has been reflected in Whitehall’s top-down approach to the North East and the other English regions.  Decisions on infrastructure to education to health are made by people without frontline experience, who don’t live here.  The result?  A huge imbalance of power, wealth and health across England.  GDP per capita in the North East is just 73% of the UK average, down from 93% in 1981.  Centralised decision making means less money in your pocket. 

A national one-size-fits-all policy affects our public services, our transport, our job prospects and even our life spans. It translates into us being top of every league table you don’t want to lead.  Lowest business density. Low productivity.  Child poverty up from a shocking 26% in 2014 to a harrowing 37% in 2020.  The 51 central government initiatives to restore regional growth since 1981 have been diktats from the top and haven’t worked.

We’ll only transform the fortunes of the North East by recognising our people are the North’s true powerhouse and our diversity is our strength. Having an elected mayor with devolved powers gives us the tools to do this.  Claiming it’s another tier of government is a lazy argument.  Evidence proves we’re fast, efficient and effective, creating jobs over target and under budget.  Taking the reins from Whitehall is the way to build a strong, vibrant and sustainable North East.  And it allows a new approach to democracy. One where people are trusted, their voices heard, where they shape public policy making in a meaningful way.

Collaboration underpins my whole approach. I’m working in partnership with everyone who has a stake in the North East.  Our three constituent local authorities.  The voluntary and community sector.  Businesses large and small.  And our trade unions.

Collaboration requires meaningful consultation with our citizens, too.  We’ve already delivered our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change.  And I’m putting this in to practice with forums such as the Mayor’s Question Time events.

My next one – the fourth so far – is this Wednesday, 7th July, at 6:30pm.  I’ll be talking about the good green jobs I’m creating in North of Tyne and how they are the bedrock for tackling poverty and protecting the planet.  Great if you can join me – and I promise it will end long before the England vs. Denmark semi-final kick-off at 8pm. 

Co-design doesn’t stop with getting government to listen to us.  It also means we listen to our people, including the North East voices that are often not heard.  Young people, people with disabilities and those experiencing poverty.  

I’ve led a culture inside the Combined Authority which believes things must be done with people, not to people.  It requires trust.  It requires a willingness to tune into what people are saying.  It means seeing marginalised people not as a burden but as resilient, capable and creative partners to solve their own problems.  A bit like how central Government should view us!

We’re putting £80,000 in to the North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission (PTC).  There’s £20,000 match funding from the Tyne and Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation. Too often, policy makers wring their hands about poverty, but make no effort to understand the actual, on-the-ground problems that trap people.  A PTC directly engages decision makers with the people experiencing poverty first-hand.  The result?  Practical measures that make a difference. 

Co-design also means trusting communities with resources. This Tuesday I’m launching our third Crowdfund North of Tyne.  That’s £200,000 from the Mayor’s Capacity Fund, for Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty projects. It’s a springboard for locally-led greening and food security initiatives. I’m empowering communities so they can directly tackle the climate emergency and food poverty where they live. This goes hand in hand with the work I’m doing to transition the North East to a zero-carbon economy via our £18 million Green New Deal and £25 million investment in offshore wind.

Trusting the regions and local communities with power and resources is the only way to level up. Along with my Metro Mayor colleagues across the North, I’m showing that when Westminster lets go of the reins so decisions are made here, we improve people’s lives.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5 July 2021