The Mayoral North of Tyne devolution deal is a waste of time

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.

If the government wants ‘clean air’, it can start investing in local transport somewhere other than London

Pressured by our still-affiliated EU member states into finally doing something about climate change, the UK government is frantically trying to reduce pollution levels in Britain’s metropolitan hotspots. But without decent municipal transport services to offset high congestion charges everywhere but London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive will only increase mobility poverty in regional areas.

When it comes to the UK capital, the government’s congestion-charge onslaught is fair enough. Last week, London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone began levying a daily £12.50 fee upon cars that don’t meet the emissions standards of the zone. Some motorists have derided the charge a ‘poll tax’, arguing that it will affect low-income families who can’t afford electric cars. Most agree, however, that London’s toxic atmosphere requires immediate thinning. Besides, with an extensive (and cheap) network of tube links, bus services and local trains, will the charge really make much difference to the average commuter? Probably not.

But congestion charges in regional areas are a different story – and that’s because regional councils don’t have their own Transport for London equivalent. As a highly organised, integrated public body – capable of implementing policy and receiving government bail-outs if targets are not met – TfL ensures that public transport fares within Greater London remain comically reasonable. In the surrounding regions, meanwhile, where government has no legal duty to guarantee efficiency or affordable fares, local bus prices have faced inflation rates of over 35% since 1995.

The 1985 Transport Act marks the beginning of this tragic affair. Under Thatcher, local bus services outside London were deregulated and privatised: the proviso being that this would ensure increased competition, leading to better services and lower prices. In reality, the reverse is true, meaning buses are doing nothing to relieve congestion or reduce fuel emissions. In fact, they only make driving cars the more economic option.

That’s why it’s so likely the government-decreed Low-Emissions-Zone proposed in Tyneside, for example, will be mothballed after the current online consultation reveals little sympathy for its implementation. Several reasons come to mind. Firstly, the prospect of a £12.50 nation-wide congestion charge just seems ignorant: it fails to account for the fact that disposable household income, as of 2016, was £11,388 higher in Greater London than the North East – a gap which can only have widened since the EU referendum. Secondly, the charge seems to forget the existence of a blatant disparity in the cost of public transport between the North-East and the nation’s capital. For the latter, a congestion charge may be an inconvenience; for the former, it could threaten economic survival.

Maddeningly, in areas outside of London, municipal private bus companies can charge whatever they like (and do) – because they face little to no competition and are unaccountable to government. In 2014, The Progressive Policy Think Tank argued that deregulation was failing the poorest in society, with working people living in deprived regional areas relying more on taxis than any other income group because of prohibitively high bus fares. A congestion charge will hit them hard. This speaks to a wider trend: passenger journeys on buses outside of London are down 4.2% from the figures obtained in March 2005; while London’s are up 23.5%. Depressingly, there are more passenger journeys in London than in the rest of England combined.

With expensive fares and unreliable services prevailing everywhere outside of London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive is going to exacerbate regional inaccessibility and isolate the country’s poorest households. Unleashed nearly 5 years ago, the recommendation put forward by The Progressive Policy Think Tank to ‘create regional transport bodies modelled on TfL at the level of city-regions and combined authorities’ has remained largely ignored. Bizarrely, for groups not entitled to concessionary passes living outside London, bus travel has become a luxury mode of transport.

Of course, eradicating pollution is essential – but placing the burden of this on the shoulders of those who can afford it least is not progressive, especially when there are no alternatives in place. To achieve ‘clean air’, the government must first commit itself to generating a comprehensive, national transport framework based on the model they reserve exclusively, and unjustifiably, for London alone.