Let’s focus on the plans we need
When I became candidate for North of Tyne Mayor last month, one piece of advice hit home above all. It came from Ben Houchen – the inspiration for my ‘Projects Not Politics’ approach with his brilliant work as Tees Valley Mayor – and that made it all the more convincing.
Ben strongly advised me – given the fluid nature of what is effectively a mayoral ‘start-up’ – to work only to a list of policy proposals that were deliverable. With the Mayor’s own budget limited to £20m a year, it is important that we stick to a few high-impact, low-budget wins.
As importantly, it seems to me, we should not over-promise on grand-scale ideological projects that are impossible to deliver.
The same advice came from Sir John Hall, who is cynical after 30 years of regional initiatives that headline big ideas, but which have repeatedly failed to tackle the same over-riding issue that has plagued the region: the need for jobs. Sir John and I have talked about the economic contribution that Newcastle United could make, given the right partnership with the Mayor.
Accountability to the electorate chimes with me as a businessman, with experience of signing off £50m annual budgets with company boards. All stakeholders need to see income and spending commitments stack up as a year progresses if they are to trust growth plans or take a risk on big new investments.
The same principle applies as much if not more to voters – because public money is at stake.
It is with increasing dismay that I hear more about grand promises from my fellow mayoral candidates, to solve everything from the banking system to mental health to workplace diversity and climate change. Of course, there is a leadership role on all of these vital issues, and we all care about them – but we need to stick to what is possible within the new Mayor’s remit.
Some of the policy proposals on offer seem to be driven by textbook ideology rather than need – and could use up most of the new mayor’s budget on their own. Proposals coming from Labour’s hard-left Momentum candidate in particular cause real cause for concern – not least for a ‘people’s bank’ and for a new ‘green energy company’. Why on earth create these bodies when the risks in these sectors are so high, and the market is already providing much of what the region’s people and businesses need?
What I propose
My five overriding themes for this election are: jobs, education, transport, homes and community, and regional pride. All have at their core the desire to create a better, stronger economy.
Within that I have four core proposals that I believe will help the new mayor to deliver what we need.
1. Boost work advice for every student
I will create a new ‘business link board’ for all senior schools, to provide mentors and work experience for every student.
This programme will call on voluntary support from local businesses. My experience of providing this at North East Futures UTC is that businesses are enthusiastic to volunteer and can provide their apprentices, grads and junior staff as mentors. GCSE and A level students respond better to 20-something mentors. And, with minimal training and attention, this provides a two-way learning experience that builds confidence.
2. Build business we’re good at
I will help our region’s growing business sectors to expand, as I have done already in technology through my business campaigning group Dynamo. We strengthen the vital connections between firms and assess what the region needs. We will use a similar approach to help other sectors where the region is strong, such as medical science, advanced manufacturing, subsea and professional services. We will use the Mayor’s position to turbo-charge the growth of these sectors, with investment of £2m a year. Businesses here are led by men and women from all backgrounds, and we all want more of that.
3. Fast-track a town renewal taskforce
A new town renewal taskforce will work in high streets and town centres across the region to prepare regeneration strategy and bid for new funds. Economic activity in the city has big challenges, with changes from internet shopping, city centre rates and the new planned pollution tax. But districts further afield suffer too. It is imperative that we understand the dynamics and how to prioritise investment to boost our key centres – whether in Wallsend, Blyth, Haltwhistle, Berwick, Wooler or Hexham.
I will commit £1m to back a team of 10 regeneration experts to bring town centre stakeholders together, drawing in outside experts on retail, leisure, heritage and vibrancy. They will develop a clear strategy for each place and communicate this so local people and business can come on board. They will help write tenders to bid for the funds available, for instance in the North Northumberland area, where £345m is allocated for the Borderlands Partnership.
4. Open new community sports hubs
I will develop new community sports hubs in partnership with those already doing great work, including the foundations of Newcastle United, Eagles and Falcons. They understand the power of sport to deliver new jobs and boost regional pride. I will deploy mayoral funds to bring in other partners and their funding. We will bid for support from Sport England, football’s Premier League and charities, to create a ‘dream team’ that addresses sport for all. And all will be driven by a Deputy for Sport, to make our region healthier and more confident.
The funds available to the North of Tyne Mayor are £20m per year, agreed by a cabinet at the North of Tyne Combined Authority. Ahead of the mayor’s election, the cabinet has already committed £100m of forward funds for job creation, school improvement and adult education and skills. All plans have a sharp focus on economic development.
All that I propose is equally practical and focussed, and won’t cost a fortune. Uncosted textbook plans, on the other hand, will not deliver the jobs our communities need. The mayor’s key role is to grow the local economy, and we can do that by creating jobs and inward investment. Let’s not get distracted into risky projects that could cost a fortune, and blow the opportunity that sits in front of us.