Devolution is about Democracy

I was listening to radio last week, and on came Michael Heseltine, bigging-up Metro Mayors. He name-checked our work in Newcastle.

It ‘s a funny feeling for a Labour politician, getting praised by a Tory grandee. It’s heartening to have your good work recognised. It’s good in electoral terms. An opposition politician saying you’re doing a good job proves your competence. But you have to wonder what your own party members think!

The gist of Lord Heseltine’s interview was that decisions are better made by locally-elected Mayors than in Westminster. He called on us Metro Mayors to come forward with coherent, strategic plans to stimulate and improve our local economies. Music to my ears. It’s what I’m doing already.

I spoke to Hezza last year, when he’d written his report, Empowering English Cities. It’s worth a read, even if you only look at the 20 recommendations. We agreed on everything to do with devolution. I said, “Michael, I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with the Tory Deputy Prime Minister. The man who closed the pits.” He laughed, and said, “When it comes to tidying up a bomb site, it doesn’t matter which dead economist you agree with.”

So what’s devolution all about? For most people, politics isn’t particularly engaging at the best of times. Constitutional reform is unlikely to inspire many chart topping protest songs. But it should. It’s about taking back control. It’s about democracy.

I lead something called a Mayoral Combined Authority. The three local authorities of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland are constituent members. They keep their independence – I’m not the boss of them. I don’t manage the bins or the libraries or the social services.

There’s a long history of Britain being run based on what works for London and the South East. Now we get to decide what works better for us.

Budgets that were previously controlled in Whitehall now get devolved to the Combined Authority. It’s not an extra layer of government, it’s moving the decision making to the places they affect. And we manage everything we do with just 34 staff.

We get £20 million a year to invest as we decide. It’s not much compared to the £14 billion a month the furlough scheme costs. But already we’ve created hundreds of jobs. We’re investing in developing the offshore wind industry. We’re helping kids without computers get online to do their schoolwork.

We’ve taken control of the adult education budget. That’s £23 million a year we’re using to fund the training opportunities for the people who live here.

We’ve just secured £24 million for brownfield housing. That allows us to build new houses without encroaching on the green belt. We have loads of old heavy-industry sites where the land needs improving. It will allow us to unlock a range of those sites across the North of Tyne. That means more affordable housing.

We’ve got a school improvement strategy. A programme to develop local festivals. We’re working to decarbonise our economy. When it comes to giving out public contracts, we’re prioritising local firms. We’re getting citizens directly involved, via a Citizens Assembly.

Together this adds up to more jobs, and more decisions involving local people.

This is just a start. In the Budget in March, the Government announced we’d get our share of £4.2 billion transport funding if we unite as a region. That means Metro line extensions, and improved bus services. We’re waiting for sign-off for our £10 million a year schools challenge budget. This will get us mental health support in every school. It means better support for our teachers.

Later this year, government will publish a White Paper on Devolution. This forms the basis of upcoming legislation. I’m negotiating to bring more investment and decision making to the North East.

Devolution means these decisions aren’t made by anonymous Whitehall mandarins. Or unelected Special Advisors. They’re made by me, in consultation with other people who live here. Who use the same Metro as you do. Whose families use the same services and live in the same communities. And above all, decisions made by a Mayor who you get to elect.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 6.7.20

To Change Direction We Have To Change The Rules

I’m a black belt in jiu jitsu. The style I practice has one main rule – stop when someone signals they want you to stop. It’s a self-defence style, not a sport. There’s nothing fair about self-defence. You only need it when the odds are against you. You’ll only ever be attacked if the aggressor thinks they can win. They might be stronger, or armed with a knife. You might be outnumbered. There might be tables and chairs in the way. We trained with that in mind. Practitioners developed realistic expectations about what success looked like. They learned to deal with chaos. It’s excellent preparation for politics. 

Some martial arts are competition focused. Competitors are matched on grade, gender and weight. If you innovate, and break the rules, the referee will penalise you. They’re every bit as demanding as jiu jitsu, but more specialised. 

The rules change a competitor’s approach. If punching someone in the face is an illegal move, as it is in some striking arts and most grappling arts, then protecting your face is a waste of energy. This becomes a trained reflex. If groin strikes are illegal, you’ll not learn to protect your groin. If headlocks are illegal, you won’t learn how to get out of a headlock. 

This too is a good analogy for politics. How we measure success determines the policies we pursue. Consider school league tables. Testing kids becomes more highly prized than nurturing their learning. Obviously, teachers are well aware of the problem but are compelled to comply with the rules. 

We have a mental health crisis in our schools. I’ll repeat that last sentence again. We have a mental health crisis in our schools. Just as it’s hard to accept that a martial arts expert might never have learned how to evade a punch in the face, it’s mind boggling that education policy has fostered this crisis. 

The North East is repeatedly at the bottom of inequality league tables. Health, wealth and life expectancy are all lower here. Our ability to raise money is limited. For instance, the business rates in London is £940 per person. In the North East it’s £300. Local taxation is not the answer. Levelling up requires more fundamental change. 

As Mayor of the Combined Authority, I’m on the hook to create jobs and economic growth. I’ve made a cracking start creating jobs. But growth is a one-dimensional measure. Between 2010 and 2018 Britain had a 34% increase in GDP. We also had a 42% increase in knife crime, a 169% increase in homelessness and a 3900% increase in food bank use. A one dimensional focus on growth will not solve our problems. 

We need to tackle many problems directly, and that means investing to save. Prevention is better than cure. But the rules discourage us. 

Why should we invest in cycling, for example? It’s the right thing to do, and I support it. It improves people’s health, reduces congestion on the roads and improves air quality. But unless it leads to economic growth, I get no credit from the Treasury. I have to divert money from education and job creation. 

But healthier people saves the NHS a fortune. It leads to better lives. It mitigates the massive costs of climate change. All the evidence shows that exercise makes us happier. And in the long term it increases productivity. 

We need a system of devolution that allows us to keep the savings. Everybody knows that crime, ill health, congestion – all these things cost us dearly, financially and emotionally. But we operate in silos. 

The Covid crisis will mean a cohort of disadvantaged youngsters will struggle with their education. If we can support them into meaningful work by the age of 19, and get the financial reward from it, we could invest in their training. We’d have the incentive that Treasury funding would repay us, so we’d invest upfront. It works financially, and it’s socially just. 

This is how we can level up. The rules affect the outcome. To change direction, we have to change the rules. 

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11.5.2020