I feel that the big challenge with the new Mayoral Authority is getting the electorate to understand what it is. A poor turnout could result in the new mayor having little authority, or worse still, a candidate elected who does not take it seriously.
When I talk to people few know what it is about, and I have heard comments such as “I do not want to be told what to do by someone in Newcastle“ I have even heard Berwick mentioned. I am sure the citizens of that elegant town did not realise they were perceived as a threat to my neighbours in Durham.
What will the new mayor do?
There is little understanding of what the mayor is actually going to do, and this needs to be explained by our existing local representatives. The powers of the new mayoral authority are as follows:
- Control over education and skills. At the moment colleges and other training providers are run independently. It is a competitive model, and many feel that this does not necessarily serve the region well. Transport provision for students is chaotic, with some colleges laying it on, and others not. This all means potential students cannot make the best choices for themselves, but simply those provided locally that they can manage to get to. Local authorities have no powers over colleges, and very little over secondary schools now. Giving these powers to the Regional Authority would mean effective control locally, not by Central Government.
- Housing and Regeneration. Local authorities do build social housing, and some like Durham have a good record. But if we are to build on brownfield land (land that has already been used for industry) and not in the open countryside, resources are needed to ensure the land is suitable. It may be polluted. The regeneration at Seaham, for example, where houses were built on the site of an old colliery, was funded by the EU and central government, not the local authority which could not afford funding on that scale Now only government money is available, so it is far better that the region is able to manage this funding and decide locally where it goes.
- Transport is run regionally already. There is a Joint Transport Committee (JTC)where all the seven local authorities act together. Its main problem is lack of power, particularly where local bus and rail networks are concerned. The Committee cannot decide which routes are to be run. Private operators will happily run efficient express routes because they make money, but will not run buses to more remote settlements unless they receive a subsidy. The alternative model, as used in London and now Manchester, is that the Mayoral Authority can determine which routes are to operate, and then “franchise” them to operators who are obliged to adhere to the conditions of the franchise. The same situation applies to local rail networks, such as the ones operated by Northern. This does not mean more buses yet, but we will have local control over them, and ultimately the power to get rid of an operator who performs badly. Most of the time local authorities and operators will cooperate as they do now. But there will be accountability locally for poor performance.
- I have not mentioned how the new authority will be run. The mayor is a figurehead, and ambassador for the region. He/she must account to the seven local authority leaders who form a cabinet. They can block his/her suggestions or make new ones. The reason Ben Houchen has proved so successful has been he has had a complaisant cabinet of Tory Council leaders and considerable support and funding from the government to be their “pin up” mayor. Not any more. Some of the leaders are now Labour, and have begun challenging him, and now some of his controversial decisions such as buying Teesside Airport and dumping toxic waste near the shore are being challenged. That is how the system should work. For it to function properly the mayor must work with the local authority leaders.
You will notice that the new mayor will not take any powers away from existing local authorities. The functions that he/she will assume are at present performed by government (Transport funding and funding for new developments) or by unelected quangos (Learning and Skills) or not at all (Transport regulation) There will no doubt be more powers later. Directors of Public Health want to work together to try and help those out of work because of illness or injury to get back into work.
Who should the mayor be?
Now, the final question, who should the mayor be? I do not know who all the candidates are, and it is unfortunate that Jamie Driscoll was prevented from standing. I do not know why. There may be reasons we do not know about. All I know is what he has written about himself in the Journal, and it seems very much that he is a one-man band, claiming credit for everything, rather than seeking the cooperative approach with council leaders I have outlined above.
The new authority comprises three cities and four major authorities. A cooperative approach is the only one which will work. I have met Kim McGuinness several times, and she absolutely understands this and will make sure all the parts of the new region count, not just Newcastle. My money is on Kim for mayor.