Jamie Driscoll is the elected mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority here in the North East. We were interested in finding out more about him and about his role as metro mayor. So what exactly is the role of a metro mayor? I interviewed Jamie Driscoll to find out.
What is a metro mayor?
The introduction of metro mayors as part of the “devolution revolution” happened after the 2015 election. It was an attempt to narrow the gap between Westminster and the regions. The plan was to “create a new tier of government, between Whitehall and the town hall, to take on certain economic and public service responsibilities too large for individual councils to deal with.”
Metro mayors (also sensibly known as ‘combined authority mayors’) are directly elected leaders of city regions. They span a number of local council areas, usually based round a central urban hub; such as Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
A dedicated socialist, Mayor Driscoll was elected in 2019 with a manifesto which outlined his desire to help create “prosperity we can all be part of.” It outlined steps for revolutionary change in the region. The focus is on traditional socialist ideals of common ownership and worker control. There is also the necessary promise of a Green New Deal.
Political success and the Great North Run
Early impressions leave no doubt as to the reason for Mayor Driscoll’s rapid political success. He was a Newcastle city councillor three years ago. He has a radiant confidence and a self-assured modesty which betray a sense of ease in all things. When I meet him I am surprised to find that he is “aching a bit”. It turns out that Brendan Foster had twisted his arm. “I’ve now got to run the Great North Run,” he tells me with an indulgent chuckle. It is his first time completing the half-marathon, but he has completed marathons in the past; and his blackbelt in Jiu-Jitsu suggests it might not be the challenge he implies.
With the formalities out the way we get on to the question of his position. I admit to him that when I told people about this interview, almost everyone assumed that I meant the sash-wearing Lord Mayor. I suggest similarities in their positions. No one seems to know what purpose they serve, or where they fit in the political system, or, sometimes, of their very existence. But this is where the similarities end. His is a position of power qualified with a manifesto and a remit for political change. I invite Mayor Driscoll to tell us about his role as North of Tyne Mayor.
He clarifies that his is not a “Joe Quimby” style mayoral position. I am pleased to learn this; it is also pleasing to learn that this political figure is distinctly human. His job is the same as Andy Burnham in Manchester, and similar to Sadiq Khan in London. The only real difference is that the position came later to the North East.
The primary objective, or his “one major target from Government,” is to “create 10,000 jobs over 30 years.” He sneaks in quickly that the figure after his two years in office should be about 700, whereas he has achieved nearer 4,000. He confirms that these are “good jobs, underpinned by our good work pledge, with proper terms and conditions, a real living wage and permanent jobs.”
As for the day-to-day aspect of his position it is “like any executive kind of job.” Diplomacy is crucial to the role because the North of Tyne has three constituent authorities in it. Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland city councils are all constituent members. The leaders and deputies of these authorities form the basis of the ‘cabinet’ of the metro mayor, whether they are in his party or not.
These councils retain control over their own services and the role of the mayor is to work with them to guide policy, through speaking to all the councillors of all the parties – or making himself available. “It is interesting,” he pontificates, “it is much less of a party role and much more of a convening role. One of the best things about being mayor is that there is no party whip. I don’t have to do what my chief whip tells me, or the leader of my group. I have to use my judgement for what’s best for the North East.”
Working with business
The role involves working right across the North East. The initial project was due to cover all the counties of Tyne and Wear and those of Durham and Northumberland too . “A huge amount is working with partners in the North East, businesses in the community, both large and small, the universities and the colleges, trade unions, community groups.” And beyond this regional focus it also involves talking to ministers and trying to “strongarm them into giving us more budget, more power,” as he puts it.
The role is beginning to emerge from the shadowy depths of ignorance and a definite form is appearing. A convening role indeed; managing and directing all the elements of our political system, from the local council to Whitehall, as well as the local businesses and institutions, all for the benefit of the region and his political agenda. But before we continue on to the politics, I desired some further clarity on the role of local authorities and combined authorities, and their relationship to his position. How does the North of Tyne Combined Authority actually work?
North of Tyne Combined Authority
“Well!” This tedious explanatory process simply must be one of the best parts of the job. “The Combined Authority is led by a directly elected mayor – so I am both the chair of the Authority and the day-to-day leader.” Under the mayor is a team of officers who do the work, in which the Mayor is on a “steering level.” But the governance, that is, the ‘cabinet’, is one voting member for each authority plus the metro mayor; so four people get a vote, and the deputies are there also. And Mayor Driscoll was keen to bring in the community and voluntary sector who act as representatives in this system of governance – with Robin Fry as the ambassador to that sector. And an “inclusive economy board” helps advise the guides, chaired by the Right Reverend Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle.
There is a real passion for the community and the region which permeates everything Mayor Driscoll says. It is clear that he sees the enfranchisement of the local communities and local businesses as the key aspect of his plans for the region. And he is keen to try to avoid “the standard mistake in Whitehall of quarterbacking passes,” and claiming to be able to fix the issues of areas such as Byker despite never visiting the area, or even the region.
You can read part 2 of the interview with Jamie Discoll here.
Watch out for part 2 coming soon…
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