Getting down to business

June 4, 2019

As Jamie Driscoll takes control of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, Richard Dawson sits down with the new Mayor to find out how he is going to build relationships with the business community and achieve some of the policies he set out in his election campaign

In November last year, Parliament signed off on a £600 million devolution deal, bringing Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland councils together in an unprecedented transfer of power and investment from Westminster to the North East.

The result was the creation of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, tasked with initiating projects to boost growth, create jobs and prepare for the election of a new metropolitan mayor.

On May 2, Labour Party candidate Jamie Driscoll was elected on a second preference count with 76,862 votes.

With a raft of new policies and priorities, the first elected mayor of the North of Tyne is no less ambitious than the authority he leads. The question on many people’s minds now is what he will be able to achieve with £20 million of funding per year.

While Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland have never seen devolution on this scale before, the North of Tyne Combined Authority has more limited powers and funding than elsewhere in the UK and must work with businesses, politicians and communities to be successful.

Mayor Driscoll has been a grassroots political activist since the 1980s, inspired by the example set by his mother who worked part-time while studying and raising four children. She was committed to a range of social justice and equalities issues and chaired the Women’s Refuge from Domestic Violence.

The new mayor’s politics is also informed by what he describes as the “devastation of communities” that occurred when parts of North East industry closed in the 1980s. He views this period of de-industrialisation as an unjust transition for the workers involved.

He says: “A just transition is to accept that you cannot simply close an industry and say to people ‘tough’.

“If you think about the pits closing, that’s almost the epitome of an unjust transition. Maybe there was a case that the mines weren’t going to be profitable for much longer. But to simply say, ‘off you all go on the dole’, that’s not a responsible thing to do for society as a whole.”

The North of Tyne mayoral election was the only poll for a directly elected mayor this year and, as such, the campaign was highly coveted.

Reflecting on his campaign, Jamie says: “The thing that was nice to have confirmed was that the political stereotypes, the pigeonholing of people, is just wrong.”

He tells a story of when he was out canvassing in Blyth and speaking to a man for whom the single biggest issue was proportional representation – perhaps not what you would expect in an industrial town where concerns about unemployment and immigration tend to dominate the narrative.

What Jamie is highlighting is how we often simplify things to understand them, when the reality is much more complicated.

Given that the mayor’s role is primarily an economic development one, it’s clear that Jamie is going to have to work closely with North East businesses on some complex issues.

It’s essential to understand how he is going to build those relationships, given that some high-profile business leaders publicly backed independent candidate John McCabe in the election campaign.

He says: “A lot of people did back me.

“When we talk about the business community, we’re talking about plumbers, shopkeepers and a whole range of things. And there were people in the business community who donated funds to my campaign too.”

That being said, a key challenge for the combined authority is going to be how to engage with North East businesses who have the resources to initiate investment and projects that can transform the region’s fortunes.

Jamie’s view is that this can be achieved by getting out there and having meaningful conversations about what local businesses need. This is something he’s been doing since starting his post on May 7 – meeting with the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s partners and attending the North East Business Awards, for example.

Some of the mayor’s headline policies include the establishment of a regional bank, making the North of Tyne net zero for carbon emissions by 2030 and overhauling adult education.

It’s clearly an ambitious agenda, but Jamie is confident.

He says: “If you speak to any business, they’ll tell you that without a bit of bravery, without a bit of ambition, you’re not going to get anywhere.

“Let’s have some ambition for the North East. Why can’t we be the first region to decarbonise? Why can’t we be the first region to have a full living wage for everyone? Let’s go for it.”

He continues: “Of course, the authority with £20 million per year can’t possibly do that on its own. So, the job for me is to get the right team here and build connections and partnerships to make sure everyone’s on board.”

One of his first priorities is to establish a regional bank, owned co-operatively by its members, with a remit to do business with people and organisations in the North of Tyne.

It is claimed that the new bank would provide a full range of banking services from current accounts, to business loans to mortgage lending. Similar models of locally managed, independent banks are being piloted in Preston and Greater London, but the concept is still in its infancy in the UK.

Before the ‘People’s Bank’ can get up and running, there is an extensive due diligence process that needs to be undertaken, as Jamie explains.

“The first task is to go through the banking licence process. The combined authority will have to invest in that to get through the initial period and get the required licence.

“The risk is on the business development side of it.

“Once the licence is there, operationally it won’t be owned by the combined authority.

“It will be independent.”

There are numerous costings outlined for the bank on Jamie’s website. £40,000 for the initial due diligence and then approximately £300,000 to recruit the right people and get through the regulatory period. If the bank becomes operational, it is thought a much larger capital investment would be required.

What remains to be seen is whether or not enough funds could be secured from members to set it up on a co-operative basis, but Jamie stresses that these banks are working well elsewhere in Europe.

Another key policy area is the environment. In his manifesto, Jamie says he will convene a Climate Change Liaison Group to work out a strategy to make the North of Tyne a net zero carbon area by 2030.

Given the embeddedness of fossil fuel consumption in modern society and the enormous costs associated with greening the economy, there could be perhaps no greater challenge for the new mayor.

But Jamie is optimistic and believes if there is enough political will, there will be a way through. He says: “In 1945, we had millions unemployed coming back from war, most of our buildings had been bombed and our infrastructure was damaged. We had monumental levels of debt and within a single term of government we had a national health service, we rebuilt the railways and we started building council houses. All because people believed it was important that we did.

“So, if we can believe in the green new deal, we can do it.”

Jamie also points out that climate change is no longer a fringe political issue.

“Businesses are mentioning it at the events I’m going to,” he says. “Mark Carney has said the financial system cannot survive unless we take climate change seriously. When the Bank of England’s Governor is saying climate change is serious, I’m no longer an outsider.”

We know that climate change is a truly global issue, but at the local level, one has to wonder if there’s anything local or combined authorities can do without massive funding from central Government.

“The role of the combined authority is very much a convening role to get everybody, public sector organisations, councils, businesses and the community to put a plan together but it cannot be done without central Government funding it,” the new mayor admits.

The North of Tyne Combined Authority will also be in charge of the Adult Education Budget from September 2020, so it’s important to know what Jamie sees as the major skills gaps in the region.

“What people in most industries are telling me is that there’s a skills gap in their sector, but we need to look at the data and decide where the priorities are,” Jamie says.

In all of this, it seems a big part of the new mayor’s role is going to involve appealing to central Government for more powers and more funding. The scale of Jamie’s ambitions means that the combined authority is going to have to leverage in capital from just about everywhere it can.

A potential complication with this is that Jamie is a Labour mayor asking a Conservative Government for help. Will the party-political system get in the way of progress on the North of Tyne?

Jamie says: “If you speak to a senior civil servant or catch a senior politician off the record, they will all tell you that once you’re in government, all of the other departments are basically arguing with the Treasury for money and that’s always the same, no matter which party is in power.”

Finally, Jamie lays out his pitch to the business community.

“What I want is prosperity for everybody in the North East and that includes those people who are really struggling to access the labour market, it’s those who are doing well but just need more support and access to finance and even those who’ve been established for a long time and want to help,” he says.

“If we build up the North East to be successful, to be world-leading, then we all benefit from it.”

North of Tyne Combined Authority