The town with lessons to share about devolution

I would have paid good money to watch John debate Sajid Javid. Shame Saj bottled it.

On Tuesday I was due to meet Chancellor Sajid Javid in Parliament, to discuss devolving budgets to Metro Mayors.  I was due to meet John McDonnell and his team immediately afterwards – it would have made an interesting comparison, since we won’t get to see Mr Javid debate Mr McDonnell.  Saj has refused; perhaps because John McDonnell would have shown that Labour governments borrow less and repay more than Conservative ones.  Google it, if you don’t believe me: has a detailed analysis. 

The whole point of devolution is to give control to local people.  More spending is needed, it’s true.  Schools have had to lay off teachers, other teachers are on zero-hours with supply agencies.  A quick look at paints a stark picture of a country failing to invest in education.  The NHS has almost 100,000 vacancies, it’s only surviving because of the million hours of unpaid overtime every week.  Everyone now recognises Boris’s bus slogan of “£350 million a week for the NHS” was a lie.  

More money is vital, but it’s local decision making that’s transformative.  Who understands an industry or service better than the people who work in it?  Who understands the needs of a community better than the people who live there? 

Take Wooler, for example.  High Streets across the country are struggling with empty shops and shrinking footfall.  Northern towns doubly so.  Wooler has bucked the trend by developing a community hub – a key plank of my election manifesto is to develop these across the region. 

The Glendale Gateway Trust has been growing since way back in 1996 – and it’s long-term local control that’s the beating heart of its success. 

The Trust took an old 19th century workhouse, standing derelict, transformed it, and in 2001 opened at as the Cheviot Centre.  It’s buzzing – a branch library, Tourist Information centre, meal clubs and soon to host a branch of the Newcastle building Society.  There’s distance learning courses via video conferencing – a climate friendly way to support adult education.  There’s timber-framed ‘pods’ out the back that look like upturned Viking ships, cheap space for local businesses to get started without having to risk long leases.  The sum total of all this activity pays the bills and keeps the hub self-financing.  More impressively, it sparks community engagement,  “The kind of cross pollination of ideas that the Cheviot centre offers is essential,” the Trust’s chief executive, Tom Johnston, told me.  

It’s sparked other initiatives.  They took on the local Youth Hostel to save it from closure.  It is now leased to Karl and Cindy, who’ve made it a thriving venture that brings people to the town.  It supports everything from trail running events to guided wildlife lectures. 

The Trust developed an old Co-op site into eighteen affordable homes and is now a registered social provider.  Too many rural communities are dying – holiday homes raises property prices, making it impossible for locals youngsters to raise a family where they grew up. 

The old Barclays Bank is being developed into a restaurant, with more flats upstairs, to give year round footfall on the High Street.   It took an interest free loan of a quarter of million to get the Trust up and running, but for twenty three years now, they’ve quietly been creating jobs, boosting community cohesion, keeping the High Street vibrant, and supporting local businesses. 

I asked Tom and the trustees how they’ve managed to keep the Trust running so well for over twenty years.  “We have a term limit,” he said.  “You can be a trustee for a maximum of nine years – that means we’re always training new people up, and the old hands are always around for advice.”  

It’s a microcosm of democratic public ownership – let the people who live and work there make the decisions, and reinvest all the profits for the future. 

I often ask politicians and civil servants: if it’s such obvious common sense to devolve budgets, why is everything controlled from Whitehall?  The answer is: Ministers like to cut ribbons. 

This article first appeared in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 18th November 2019

These are the startup business pods at the Cheviot Centre. Cool, huh?