Live: The future of the North of Tyne

Voters in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside will elect a mayor on May 2 to lead the new combined authority. Richard Dawson sits down with all five candidates to discuss their vision for the future of the North of Tyne

John Appleby
Liberal Democrats

John Appleby has stood for political office a number of times and has experience as a Lib Dem councillor for Woolsington ward in Newcastle. Aside from politics, John is also a senior lecturer in engineering mathematics and is involved with several third sector organisations.

He has decided to put himself forward to be mayor of the North of Tyne because he is a passionate believer in devolution and wants to use the platform to build relationships with regional leaders, government and ordinary people to get more powers and more responsibilities for the region.

John’s key priorities are closely associated with those set out in the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan. Inclusive growth with a particular emphasis on support for small businesses. He is also keen to invest more resources into rural areas to improve transport links, digital infrastructure and provide a leg up for small businesses in those areas as well.

“My number one priority is to get out there and build relationships,” he says.

“The terrible mess going on in Westminster at the moment means there’s a lot of damaged relationships between people, between regions, between countries. Whatever happens with Brexit, which is massively important because everyone thinks it will hit the North East hardest, we must repair those broken relationships and build new ones.”

The government’s own impact assessments (published February 26) show that in a no-deal scenario, the North East’s economy could stand to shrink by up to 10.5 per cent, leaving SMEs particularly exposed. John’s policies to support small businesses are aimed at addressing the challenges they may face.

He says: “A lot of small businesses or self-employed people are short of information, short of time and short of confidence. But there’s a lot of things they can tap in to. For example, they can get apprentices with only a small contribution.

“Procurement issues also often mean that only the big firms go for contracts because only they have time to do the paperwork.

“The big firms are more in need of an ambassador, lobbying government and building connections but for small businesses, it’s all about information, advice and support.”

John is also keen to make a distinction between challenges facing the region as a whole and the mayor specifically.

He explains: “For the region, social deprivation is a big issue and you can tackle it from a business perspective by looking at growing sustainable jobs, by looking at basic skills and apprenticeships and looking at things that will improve people’s life chances and well-being.

“For the mayor, the biggest challenge I would say is managing expectations. Compared to the other metro mayors, this post has really limited powers. I think everyone’s going to want to see dramatic changes. Lots are possible, but I do want people to realise this is not a person coming in with massive powers and funding, this is a person who can focus and promote.”

On the subject of promoting the region as a place to work, live and crucially invest, John is keen to take a leaf out of other people’s book.

“I would like to talk to others who’ve been mayor for a while such as Ben Houchen, Andy Burnham and maybe even Sadiq Khan if I can get a slot in his diary,” he says.

“I’d then have to look at the major international employers and speak to any international organisations promoting trade. It would be exploratory.”

The new mayor will have to work closely with the business community to make progress. For John, this would involve simplifying regulatory frameworks for businesses and getting them onside with corporate social responsibility.

He adds: “The business community need to know they’re valued. They need to know there is funding and advice available to help them promote what they do. But they also need to be seen promoting their businesses as providing good life chances for people.

“In the end, people’s wellbeing and welfare are better if they’ve got good, sustainable jobs, than if they’ve got more benefits.

“What makes me a liberal democrat is I think you need to strike a pragmatic balance between the private and public sectors and between individual enterprise and communal responsibility.”

Why should people vote for you?

I think I’m overall, the most experienced candidate both politically and in the breadth of my experience. I’ve got senior management experience, I’ve worked in various sectors, I have a real drive to find solutions that everyone can understand and buy into and I’m absolutely straight forward.

Jamie Driscoll

Alongside his mayoral bid for the new combined authority, Jamie Driscoll is a Labour councillor for Monument ward, which covers Newcastle city centre. Formerly an engineer and project manager in the IT sector, Jamie spends much of his time campaigning on a range of social justice issues.

After an extensive selection process, Jamie won the nomination to become Labour’s official candidate and is motivated by a desire to improve living standards and ensure that the next generation will be better off than the one before.

He is proposing several policies to help create high-skilled jobs and is promoting a community wealth building agenda, which aims to change the role of procurement so that SMEs can bid for government tenders and contracts. He also wants to set up a regional bank to keep money in the region.

He explains: “At the moment, if someone buys a house, their interest payments leave our region. They briefly go through London, create a small number of jobs and then disappear off into the financial sector.

“If we have a regional bank with full banking services, then people can get mortgages through that bank. That interest payment then stays here. These banks operate only within the region so the money can’t leak out, with a mandate to lend to local businesses.”

Improving public sector procurement is central to Jamie’s offer to the business community. He notes that the Government spends £284 billion buying goods and services from suppliers every year. But little of that money makes its way to the North East.

“The reason we don’t get it is that for small and medium businesses, it’s almost impossible to write bids without interrupting your day-to-day business,” he says.

“If we set up a new procurement framework, it makes it easier to secure not only money that’s spent in our region but also to start winning work that’s spent elsewhere.

“On an operational basis, you’d have a team of people offering a support service, owned cooperatively by the businesses who want to take part, on the understanding that if they won a tender, then they would give a proportion of it back.”

Also being proposed is an industrial strategy to make it easier for businesses to plan for the long-term and a careers service to generate more interest in STEM subjects among young people.

Jamie identifies a number of challenges facing the region. Homelessness, food banks, insecure work and rising levels of household debt. The key to addressing these issues for him is sustainability.

“Everything’s fragmented,” he says. “You’ve got individuals bidding for pots of money all over the place. Businesses don’t know what’s going to happen next year. People are leaving university not knowing if they’re going to be able to get a job.

“One of the reasons we have such a tide of mental health problems is because so many people don’t know what’s happening and what the future looks like.

“Sustainability is about everything. But at the heart of it is secure, long-term employment. If people are in secure employment, so many other problems disappear.”

As well as attracting public sector contracts, the new mayor is going to need to leverage private sector investment to be successful. For Jamie, this is about working out the detailed advantages of doing business in the North East and promoting them nationally and internationally.

He comments: “People who are looking to make inward investment don’t come here because they like the way the mayor shook their hand. Nobody is going to go and spend hundreds of millions of pounds on the basis of personal connections.

“I know how it is that firms come to invest somewhere. You have an operations director looking to see if there’s a skilled workforce. The logistics director is looking at transport links. The finance director is looking at sustainability in the local economy.

“It’s therefore about having someone who can work out the detailed advantages of doing business here. And that requires someone who understands the ecosystem of why businesses move where they move.”

Why should people vote for you?

If people look behind the slogans and the spin, they’ll see I actually understand the policies. I’ve already been working with council leaders so that we have plans in place when funding opportunities come up. As a mayor, you’re someone who has to take people with you and that’s what I really bring to it.

Charlie Hoult

Since 2009, Charlie Hoult has been in charge of family-owned Hoults Yard, a business hub for creative entrepreneurs. Before running to be mayor of the North of Tyne, he set up ventures specialising in software, technology and recruitment as well as co-founding Dynamo, a forum championing growth in the North East’s IT sector.

Charlie put himself forward to be mayor because he has a strong track record of attracting investment to the region and believes his eye for success will bring in the kind of big projects that will make a real difference. He sees the mayoral role as primarily an economic development role and thinks a business person like him is right for the job.

Charlie has five key policy areas covering transport, education and skills, job creation, housing and what he calls “celebrating regional pride”. His campaign slogan ‘projects not politics’ refers to his background as a businessman rather than a politician and signals his intention to focus on investment if elected.

His vision for the new combined authority is to get the region working together.

He explains: “For me, it’s about working as a team. Because it’s a relatively small set of powers, it’s really just the start of the process of taking back control. So, the mayor needs to bring people together and work with everyone – charities, businesses, public sector and national government.

“That’s where I see my skill set. I’ve delivered £30-40million pound projects in the past, built a business of 400 people in London, came back to the North East in 2009 and have built another business with 120 people here.”

The devolution deal secured for the North of Tyne stipulates that the combined authority must use the new powers and funding to invest in projects to improve education, skills and help get people into work. Like the other candidates, this is at the heart of Charlie’s campaign.

He says: “The most important thing for most people is to have a job. That’s the basis of giving people a livelihood, a leg up in life. Giving people handouts isn’t sustainable. Giving someone a hand up is giving them a future.”

The sector group Charlie co-founded, Dynamo, also worked in partnership to bring new educational establishments such as the National Innovation Centre for Data and the North East Futures UTC to the region – giving more people access to specialist training and skills.

While things like the tech sector are thriving in the North East, the region still faces an uphill battle catching up with other parts of the UK, which typically have more investment, better infrastructure and higher employment.

“For me, it’s about belief,” says Charlie. “There are brilliant things going on in the region. I’m all about the positives. There are challenges, but if you dwell on the struggle, you’re not talking it up.”

Charlie has also suggested using the devolved funds to put in a speculative bid for Newcastle United. Whether a serious suggestion or one aimed at grabbing voters’ attention, sport is central to his plans about how best to promote the region and attract international investment.

“My background in business is as a marketeer” he says.

“It’s super important to know how to market something and the key to that is differentiators. You’ve got to pick aspects of the region that are going to make us famous around the world and that are different and authentic. Sport is a beacon and it’s about finding those beacons.”

Charlie has many connections in the business community and would be looking to use his network to drive growth in the North of Tyne, if elected. For him, initiating new projects requires bringing people together and working behind the scenes to make it work.

He comments: “I’ve got a big network in the North East. ‘A big tent’ to coin a phrase. For me, it’s about getting everyone in and working hard to get projects off the blocks.

“My leadership style is not Churchillian rousing rhetoric. It’s working behind the scenes, cajoling and compromise. Working out the priorities but having eyes on the prize to deliver.”

Why should people vote for you?

It’s about experience. Full stop. Track record. Done it before, do it again. I was in Downing Street recently talking to the team there. If you’re going to be inviting ministers up here, you’ve got to have someone who’s got a network, a connected mayor. If you do the same things, you get the same results. So, we’ve got to do things differently if we want to get noticed as a region.

Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson has had a long career in the British armed forces and between 2000 and 2008 served as a Conservative councillor for North Tyneside before resigning his seat over controversial comments he made at a sub-committee meeting.

As a councillor, he sat on public committees such as the North East Assembly and the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, working to deliver on projects for the benefit of the local community.

He was inspired to put himself forward to be mayor of the North of Tyne because he believes that the major political parties have become dogmatic and incapable of putting the needs of the region first. He is also a committed Brexiteer and believes that the removal of European legislation will allow North East businesses to thrive.

If elected, Hugh’s priority would be to encourage new industries to the region, particularly those specialising in renewable energy. He is also passionate about adult education and would like to see new educational facilities and training programmes developed to help upskill current and future workforces.

He comments: “To make the most of our resources here in the North East, it’s not enough to make use of natural resources, we have to make use of human resources as well. For that, I’d be pushing to have almost a multiversity be built in the North of Tyne for 19+ education.

“We need to have a new complex where people can go to get skills that are in short supply in the North East.”

While not directly responsible for the delivery and regeneration of public transport across the North of Tyne, the new mayor will convene a Joint Transport Committee, bringing together key stakeholders from across the region to figure out the best way to move forward.

Hugh believes revitalising transport is key to increasing prosperity and wellbeing for everybody in the North of Tyne.

He explains: “It’s easy to say health, wealth and happiness for all but they’re not quite so easy to achieve. For instance, transport in this area needs to be massively revamped. There are places like Amble who’ve suffered tremendously from when its main employer went bust. They’ve got a superb harbour there, but they’re starved of transport.”

Part of the reason transport across the North East is still an issue is because of a historic funding gap between the North of England and the South. Transport spending in London for example is more than three times what it is here. For Hugh, this is one of the biggest challenges we face.

“To me, it’s neglect by national government,” he says.

“Neither party has done much for the area. The Conservatives think it’s a Labour area so there’s not much point them spending money there. The Labour Party thinks they’ve got the vote so let’s spend the money somewhere else.

“Another disadvantage that we have is the fact that we are so close to Scotland, but we don’t get benefit of the Barnett formula and because we’re the most remote from London, we get less investment than everywhere else too.”

Hugh also believes that North East businesses will thrive once we leave the European Union.

“I would hope that when Brexit comes through, business will benefit by the removal of what I think are unnecessary restrictions. Many of our businesses have nothing to do with Europe but are constrained by European laws. I think we need to get rid of that,” he says.

Why should people vote for you?

Look at the name of my party. The United Kingdom Independence Party. Take the first one united. I know you can’t unite everybody, but I want to see unity of purpose for the area. Most of us want to work together but Labour and Conservative tend to fight each other. What one puts up the other knocks down. But we can work together.

The next thing is independence. When I was at the North East Assembly, I saw what I describe as a microcosm of the European Union where the employees ran the place and the elected representatives, all they could do was say yes. For the North of Tyne combined authority, I want to make sure all of the decision-making is done by the elected representatives.

John McCabe

Before putting himself forward to be mayor of the North of Tyne, John McCabe was president of the North East England Chamber of Commerce. He is also managing director of Fusion PR Creative, a public relations agency that he set up in 2013.

John was motivated to run for political office because he believes that the new mayor needs to be someone who is not politically aligned, who is capable of uniting the North of Tyne by bringing public, private and voluntary sectors together and who understands the diversity of the local business community.

John’s campaign is centred around economic growth, jobs and skills. He has put forward policies such as giving children access to coding education and creating a mayoral commission on opportunity, with the hope that such measures will better equip the future workforce and ensure that no one faces barriers to meaningful employment.

He explains: “A big part of the devolution deal that we’ve got is around jobs and skills. It’s critical to the economic future of the North of Tyne that we get more better paid, good quality, sustainable jobs into the economy.

“That means looking at the skills gap. Making sure our schools and colleges are plugged into the business community even better than they are today.

“I’m also looking to create a mayoral commission on opportunity that will look at all aspects of diversity, equality, social mobility and mental health. Ultimately, with the objective of making sure that nobody faces a barrier to them achieving their full potential. It’s about smashing the glass ceiling.”

Recent studies show that businesses clearly need to do more to ensure diversity in the workplace and John’s commission on opportunity is clearly an attempt to address this.

He stresses: “This commission needs to look like the people it’s there to represent. It’s about providing a platform to people who haven’t had that platform before.”

Also important to John is that the mayor’s role should be to create the conditions for businesses to thrive.

He says: “The mayor’s role for me is about recognising that politicians, agencies and government don’t create jobs. Businesses do.

“It’s about understanding that the business community is very diverse and ensuring that every penny is spent on business growth, job creation and job protection.”

While not directly within the mayor’s control, John is also keen to push for greater powers to improve transport in the North of Tyne, linking rural and urban communities together with better digital infrastructure as well.

He explains: “This is about the future. We need to see the devolution deal that we’ve got as good, but it could be bigger, it could be better.

“We need to make sure we achieve what we want to achieve but then start making the case to government that we want more powers, more investment and a wider reach so we can do more.”

The North of Tyne mayor will still have to face up to both historical and futures challenges and work out effective ways to overcome them.

For John, the biggest challenge right now is Brexit or rather the damage it has done to social cohesion.

He specifies: “It’s the impact of Brexit in terms of dividing communities, dividing people, dividing people from the people who are there to represent them and the effect that has had on the level of trust people have in the establishment and their engagement with the political process.

“The politicians in Westminster are the ones dealing with the process and sooner or later they’re going to deliver an outcome. The mayor’s role is therefore to take that outcome and make the very best of it in the North of Tyne.”

Another key area is inward investment, promoting the region on a national and international scale. John’s approach to this is all about collaboration.

He says: “The mayor’s role is to collaborate with people at the sharp end of international marketing opportunities. It’s about giving them the resources and making sure that collectively, the public and private sector are coming together to form a coherent plan that we can articulate to potential inward investors.”

Why should people vote for you?

I care passionately about this. I’m not a career politician. I wouldn’t have gotten involved if I didn’t care deeply about the North of Tyne but also if I wasn’t really excited about the opportunity devolution represents. I feel very lucky to live in this part of the world, but I’ve seen how tough it can be as well and that’s what drives me to do this.