Two days ago, the North of Tyne combined authority elected their first regional mayor: Momentum-backed Labour candidate Jamie Driscoll. Gifted with £600 million across a thirty-year stint, the money provides the office with an annual £20 million to invest in infrastructure and job creation. Disqualified from legislating on local transport and housing, the incumbent will be prevented from addressing the issues affecting the region most. At best, the money will buoy a small number of large-scale, high-publicity projects unlikely to translate into wider prosperity.
Branded as a historic devolution deal guaranteed to level out regional divides, the project is the brainchild of George Osborne. Anxious to prevent his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ idea from being written-off as another never-to-be-fulfilled pledge by an insensitive Westminster politician, Osborne fed the authority enough funding to secure its approval in just three out of seven councils: Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle.
Unfortunately, Gateshead, Durham, Sunderland and South Tyneside’s abstention from the devolution deal assuaged the authority’s political bargaining power, and therefore purpose, from the outset. Even in the country’s most cash-strapped councils, hostility towards austerity continues to mitigate against the acceptance of tokenistic handouts or lacklustre devolution scams. Originally proposed as The North-East Combined Authority (NECA), Mr Osborne had offered a fund of just £900 million to be metered out over 30 years, equalling around 4.2 million per council per year (or 40p per person per week). That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the scale of funding cuts (which, claims Gateshead Council’s Martin Gannon, have resulted in a £900 per-family spending reduction in Gateshead since 2010).
That being said, the North-East still finds itself in a dilemma: caught between a desperation to progress by any infinitesimal means possible, and the strong inclination to reject Conservative ‘charity’ on the basis that something better might eventually come along. It may appear that refusal to participate in devolution is illogical and self-sabotaging, because, as George Osborne made clear, this was ‘the only game in town.’ But many believe the post exists to force local councils into taking responsibility for funding cuts emanating from the top tier of government, creating local-level scapegoats to offset legitimate government criticism.
On top of this uncertainty, it’s also worth remembering that while ‘the North’ exists as a homogeneous, industrial mass for anyone who lives down South, it’s very multifaceted. It can’t be grouped together, politically or geographically, with any kind of ease. Durham and Sunderland, for one thing, are extensive in size: they have little affinity with their North-of-Tyne counterparts. Even Gateshead – just a stone’s throw away from Newcastle – feels like a different world entirely. The distance isn’t alleviated, either, by prohibitively expensive local transport links (especially buses), adding physical barriers to economic ones.
When it came down to the mayoral race itself, there ensued a second-round run-off between Labour’s Jamie Driscoll and the Conservative candidate Charlie Hoult, proving that this was never anything but a partisan struggle between the two largest, safest, political organisations. Smaller, more radical and experimental groups lacked the institutional backing, funds, or perhaps will, to put forward the £5000 deposit required for entrance into the candidacy (such as The North East Party and the Greens), also citing concerns about the post’s democratic credentials. Indeed, though the independent candidate made the process slightly more interesting, the absence of any women screamed anti-progressivism.
Far from an exhilarating and diverse electoral contest, then, the candidates seemed only halfheartedly engaged. They could afford to be, because no real power was at stake. Tyne and Wear Citizens, a local charity, set up a Citizens’ Assembly event the day before voters went to the polls. Here, Lib-Dem candidate John Appleby revealed, honestly but uninspiringly, that Newcastle’s met-mayor will have considerably less authority than its regional counterparts (in Manchester, or London for example). ‘That doesn’t mean I think the role is pointless, just that we shouldn’t over-promise or expect too much,’ he said, which basically meant, ‘I’m not over-promising because I think this role is pointless.’
The sad thing is, his scepticism is justified. The project is nothing but lip-service: it appears that up North, councils can’t be trusted with real power, and those dissatisfied with this state of affairs are punished via austerity for calling the government out on it.