Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside go to the polls to elect a North of Tyne Mayor on 2nd May. In this blog, Arlen Pettitt looks at five challenges the candidates will face.
The election to find a mayor for the North of Tyne is now four weeks away, and Wednesday (3rd Apr) saw the first business hustings, hosted by the CBI in partnership with the Chamber, FSB and Entrepreneurs Forum.
A second hustings event is being hosted by the Chamber and Centre for Cities on Thursday 18th April.
On Wednesday, four candidates – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent – answered questions and outlined their visions for North of Tyne in front of a room of business people. A fifth candidate, representing UKIP, has subsequently entered the race.
I’m going to steer clear of the politics – the Chamber will work with whoever the new Mayor is to represent the views of our members and push for the priorities of the region’s business community.
The colour of the rosette is also irrelevant to what I want to talk about, which is the inherent challenges the Mayor will face, regardless of which of the candidates is in office come 2nd May.
These are reflections based on one event with one particular format, and there wasn’t much opportunity to go into depth or for back and forth amongst the candidates – but they are issues which are likely to come up over the course of the campaign.
Candidates on the stage as the first business hustings event in the North of Tyne Mayoral race gets underway - lots of @NEEChamber members here representing their businesses and to hear the alternative visions for the future of the North of Tyne. pic.twitter.com/kiSRUfkpnn
— Arlen Pettitt (@NEEChamberArlen) April 3, 2019
Before Wednesday’s event had even started, as the candidates lined up on stage, one of the biggest challenges facing them was already obvious – they were all white men.
They were asked early on what their approach would be to fostering inclusion and diversity, and the responses were on the whole light and lacking policy substance.
That’s not to say they wouldn’t be able to make progress – indeed inclusion is one of the portfolios which be held by the Mayor’s cabinet of local authority leaders – but there’s clearly a lot more thinking to be done.
As a region, economic inactivity, productivity and gender balance are all significant issues – and addressing the systemic causes of this will be an important step.
Compared to men, women in the North East are half as likely to be self-employed and over three times more likely to be in part-time work – so there is work to be done to foster entrepreneurship and clear barriers creating underemployment.
There was a lot of talk of connectivity from the candidates, and some reference to the North of Tyne region’s urban-rural split, but not much on how to build a coherent sense of place.
Just as answers on diversity lacked real substance, so too did responses to a question on life expectancy.
According to the ONS, a boy born in Walker or Westgate can expect to live to an age of 71, whereas a boy born in Ponteland has a life expectancy of 83 or 84.
This vast disparity reflects the inequality – be that social, economic or health – which afflicts the North of Tyne region.
It may be one Mayoralty, but Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside are three very different areas, with very different challenges – supporting them all and making sure no one area feels left behind will be a difficult task.
What are the overarching policies on housing? On transport? On pay and poverty? On healthy ageing? On closing that life expectancy gap?
None of those questions are North of Tyne specific, but part of the reason why they are so difficult to find a proper answer for is that unlike most other devolved mayoral regions, it isn’t a recognisable economic area.
The elephant in the room, albeit one everyone is perfectly happy to point at and talk about, is the absence of the four south of Tyne authorities from the mayoral region.
This means it’s all but impossible to have a single strategy for structural issues like housing, transport and inward investment, when people live outside the North of Tyne and the Metro crosses the river.
That’s a big contrast to city-regions like Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, or even to the Tees Valley, where it’s far easier for the Mayor’s office to draw a couple of big circles and say “here are our people and here is where they work”.
The North of Tyne Mayor will have to work across these boundaries, and while some of the mechanisms for doing so already exist, the ability of the Mayor to work productively beyond their authority could well be where their time in office succeeds or fails.
Lack of a big project
One throwaway line about buying Newcastle United aside, there was no big, unifying policy idea which came out of the hustings debate – mostly because there just isn’t an obvious one.
In the Tees Valley, they had two – the South Tees Development Corporation site and Durham Tees Valley Airport.
You don’t want something that will monopolise every moment of time and every penny of the budget to get done, but you do want something the public can get excited about locally and which signals loud and clear that the region is moving forward and is open for business.
A big project could really help get people interested in the process and bought into the role of the Mayor – but if it isn’t there, it isn’t there.
Which brings me to my final point.
In comparison to the other Mayoral regions, North of Tyne’s mayor actually has relatively few powers – see the handy table in this Centre for Cities explainer.
It’s the only region without powers over transport, has no responsibility for health and social care, and lacks some of the flexibility enjoyed by other regions on industrial strategy, education and skills and housing.
Now, some of that is because their devolution deals are more developed – if you show central government you’re a safe pair of hands, they’re more likely to hand over more powers – but it also means we have to be realistic about what is achievable.
In short, we can’t expect the new Mayor to move mountains, but they can and should be a figurehead fighting for recognition and influence for North of Tyne nationally and internationally and working to simplify the complex political and stakeholder relationships inside and outside the region.
So, with under a month to go, there are lots of questions still to be answered.
If you’d like to ask some of them yourself, you can sign up to the joint Chamber and Centre for Cities hustings event in Newcastle on 18th April.
Knowledge Development Manager