The Parallels Between “Levelling Up” and “Back to Basics”

Do you remember “Back to Basics”?  The John Major version that was satirised by Viz magazine, not the Christine Aguilera album.  

Major advocated a Britain based on morality and decency, but the campaign was ridiculed when a succession of Conservative politicians were embroiled in scandals.  Some lied under oath and eventually went to prison.  Despite leading this moral crusade, it later emerged that John Major had an extra-marital affair with Edwina Currie.  That’s their business, but Prime Ministers should not set standards for others that they don’t keep themselves…

There’s an obvious parallel between “Levelling Up” and “Back to Basics.”  We’ve been waiting for the Levelling Up White Paper for 2 years, and it arrived on Wednesday.  It contains 12 missions from improving primary education to reducing crime.  I’ve never met anyone in any political party who advocates for worse education or increasing crime.  The disagreements are about how we achieve it, and where the money comes from.  This White Paper doesn’t answer the money question.  In fact, it doesn’t even say how much money is needed.  It’s more of a wish list, really. 

What is significant is the White Paper’s commitment to devolution.  It recognises the success of Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) including the North of Tyne.  Given that 8 out of 10 MCAs are led by Labour Mayors, that can only be because the evidence backs it up. 

In the North of Tyne, we’re exceeding our job creation targets by a factor of 4.  For every £1 we spend, we lever in over £3 of investment.  Every £1 we spend creating jobs returns over £3 to Treasury in increased taxes.  The North of Tyne is astonishing value for money. 

I’ve been Mayor for less than 3 years, and along with my local authority colleagues in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, we’re delivering more than 4,487 new jobs, saved 2,679 jobs despite the economic impact of Covid, created 28,800 training courses so people can skill-up and earn more, and supported 1,707 businesses with guidance and advice.  I want the rest of the region, South of the Tyne, to get the same benefits.

The White Paper now officially states the Government position is to expand the Mayoral Combined Authority for the North East.  It’s good news – we’re all the same conurbation.  And it unlocks £100’s of millions in transport funding. 

To be a good deal for the North East, it will have to extend our existing North of Tyne funds based on the population of the extended area.  There can be no loss of funding on a per-capita basis. I’ve been talking to Treasury, Transport and Local Government ministers for the past two years about this extra devolved funding.  It’s now within sight. 

If we can make it happen, it will bring in well over £1 billion of new money to our region.  It is much needed – our local authorities have faced severe cuts over the past decade of austerity.  For the record, I still think our local authorities need their full funding restored.  Social care, emptying the bins, parks and leisure centres, libraries and street lighting, and so much more is the province of local councils. 

The role of an MCA is about making the region prosperous across local council boundaries.  That means transport across our region – better buses, and expanding the Metro.  More firms investing here from outside, and more start ups and scale ups inside our region.  More research and development, and making sure the spin off companies are based here.  The training programmes to make sure these jobs are available for everyone whatever their background.  All based on a green economy, with a thriving cultural scene. 

For me, levelling up is back to basics.  It means nobody needing to use a food bank.  Everyone able to get where they want to go, affordably.  A secure warm home within everyone’s means.  Every parent confident that their children have a good life ahead of them – here, in the North East, if they choose to stay.  Travel is great – but we’ll know the North East has levelled up when no one has to move away to earn a decent living. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7 Feb 2022

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

So Much Achieved In Just One Year!

It’s been an amazing year and with the support of my fantastic team we’ve achieved so much. Here are the highlights.

Promoted by Richard Williams on behalf of Jamie Driscoll both at Labour North, Kings Manor, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6PA.