There is an aspect of elected mayors that I do not like. It is that the system has encouraged conceited and egotistical people to come forward who claim credit for everything that happens in their region.
Ben Houchen on Teesside is a classic example of this, and Jamie Driscoll is in danger of becoming another should he be elected. Ben Houchen has only achieved the success he has because he has been used by the Conservatives to provide some evidence that they are actually “Levelling Up”. Which resulted in the by-election win in Hartlepool. It is unlikely he will do so well if there is a change of government. Jamie has claimed the credit for things that have actually been done by others in his campaign.
Despite all this, I am a passionate believer in regional devolution. I think local authorities in a region will achieve more if they act together than on their own. ”By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”.
Haven’t I seen that before somewhere? Yes, it is on the Labour Party card. I agree with Norma Redfern, Deputy Mayor of North Tyneside, who said at a recent meeting of the authority, “We have worked together for a longtime now and we have achieved a great deal”. Note – all of the people in the cabinet. Regional Government only works if all the authorities work together. It is not an ego trip for one person.
New job opportunities
I’ll give an example of this. All over the North East Local Authorities have built factories and offices in the hope of attracting new jobs. How many of them have you seen standing empty, or occupied by the local authorities themselves? Yet some have been very successful. Look at Net Park at Sedgefield, or the new International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) being set up by Sunderland and South Tyneside Councils beside the A19 which hopefully will soon host a large battery plant.
A senior member of the Labour Group at Durham told me it was crazy for each authority to build its own industrial plants which are then left half empty, when fewer large-scale ventures could attract major modern employers. Local authorities need to cooperate. But such a policy requires a first-class transport system so the jobs are available to everyone. It could simply be left to people to use their own private cars. But that both increases pollution and excludes many members of the population.
It is significant that one of the major causes of air pollution and global warming is the large number of vehicles trying to cross the Tyne each day. It is noticeable that during the pandemic the quality of air near major roads improved substantially. This is why transport is going to be a major issue in the forthcoming mayoral elections.
It is a matter of public record that I chair Scrutiny for the Joint Transport Committee. This comprises all of the seven local authorities in the North East, ably chaired by Councillor Martin Gannon from Gateshead, and is an embryo regional body. I do have some idea of what is going on with transport.
The first thing to note is things take a long time. The Joint Transport Committee, has achieved some major successes, but it takes a long time and much hard work. Transport North East, the body which implements transport policy, has some good officers. One of the things it has done is produce a Transport Plan for the North East which is well worth reading. It is on their website.
It has five aims, to contribute to the North East being carbon neutral by 2050, to help overcome inequality and grow our economy, to make the North East healthier, to provide people with sustainable transport choices, and to ensure a safe and secure network. It is both idealistic and sensible. It does not propose to eliminate cars for example, but to encourage people to use sustainable public transport more.
Now you might wonder what the point of that is? Unless we have adequate funding, all these things will simply remain aspirations. The point is that if funding does become available, and we must bid for it, then we have a plan set out. Other areas might have to produce evidence quickly and miss the bus, (pardon the pun), because these bids have to be done quickly.
A good example is the bus service improvement plan or BSIP. You may remember that Boris Johnson promised three billion pounds in grants to improve bus services. On closer scrutiny it was found that, like many of his promises, only one billion was available to be bid for. Transport North East got a bid in, and as a result received more than £164 million for this region. That was one of the biggest allocations in the country. We didn’t get it because Jamie Driscoll had a chat with Michael Gove. We got it because the officers and members of the Joint Transport Committee had worked hard together over several years.
When the new mayoral authority begins it will continue all this work. As I have said before the necessary improvements in our transport system will not be achieved by flamboyant gestures, nor will they happen overnight. They will come as the result of everyone working together, led by the mayor.
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