One month ago, Labour left-winger Jamie Driscoll was elected the inaugural Mayor of North of Tyne, heading a combined authority of Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside with the promise of £600m over the next 30 years to create 10,000 jobs and boosting the local economy by over £1bn. Without a devolved mayor that money would not have been available . . . still, COLIN WAKELING has his doubts, expressed in this open letter to Mayor Driscoll
Dear Mr Driscoll,
Upon reading the manifesto produced to promote your successful bid to become first Mayor of North of Tyne I am at a loss to appreciate how your election will make a positive impact on life up here in rural north Northumberland, an area much loved and, for reasons a visit would make obvious, known to many as ‘Godzone’.
I could find no direct references to agriculture, fishing or tourism, industries on which many livelihoods in this area depend, apart from some sketchy mentions of the service sector.
Do you have any proposals to ‘future-proof’ struggling rural communities where basic services are increasingly under threat from the closure of post offices, banks, shops and pubs? What will you do to ensure universal access to high speed broadband without which rural businesses will struggle to survive?
You recognise that our transport infrastructure lags behind the rest of the UK; that lack of transport links increases loneliness and isolation; and that in this area there is little alternative to the car if residents are to maintain any realistic degree of connectivity. So, I eagerly await your proposals for on-demand transport. With plenty of working examples in the UK and across Europe, tangible plans should not take long to frame and implement.
What about the rest of your transport wish list? Realistically, how many minutes can be shaved from rail journeys to Edinburgh and London? Could the potential time-saving justify the cost? Might it not be better achieved by sacrificing intermediate Northumberland stops to speed up inter-city journey times? You make no mention of the possible re-opening of Belford Station, nor the reintroduction of stopping services on the line.
Where will the money for your many schemes come from? By your reckoning, a Peoples’ Bank would cost some £21 million to establish, with its CEO probably pocketing a goodly six-figure salary. How would smaller, rural communities access its services?
A community owned green energy company has a superficial attraction, but there are many similar schemes which struggle: Robin Hood Energy, which you cite, has only just turned a profit on the back of local authority loans totalling some £20 million; Octopus has accumulated losses amounting to £10 million; Bristol Energy has racked up a cumulative £22 million deficit. Funding like this has to come from somewhere.
I also hope you appreciate that the majority of rural dwellers have to rely on coal, oil or LPG – none of which are subject to price caps – to heat their homes. What will you do for them?
You pledge to recruit (presumably well paid?) staff to implement your programme – Procurement Framework, Climate Change Liaison Group, Food Waste Strategy, Transport Studies, Careers Advisers, Environmental Educators, Equalities Unit, Land Purchase, Export Advisers, Peoples’ Bank, Community Energy – and, of course, a Communications Team to trumpet how well you’re doing.
At a time when local councils are struggling to fund basic services, the cost of your office must surely either come from savings elsewhere or a hike in local taxation.
It seems significant that you will be based right in the centre of Newcastle. Many of us in Godzone see even Morpeth as too remote from our concerns. Newcastle is even further away. How many of your staff will make more than an occasional token 120 mile round trek to the far flung reaches of your ‘empire’, far from the comfort zones of their air conditioned offices?
Your focus appears to be principally on the urban core of the region. You may have received devolved powers from Whitehall – and the jury is still out on how meaningful these will turn out to be – but you certainly do not seem to be devolving much to the rest of us, except, perhaps, responsibility for funding your projects.
I can find aspirations a-plenty in your manifesto, much politically driven but seemingly without an eye to economic reality and the area’s diverse community needs.
Perhaps you will be able to tell us when you will hold the first of your face-to-face events in this area, at which, no doubt, you will enlighten us on the benefits we can expect to receive from your mayoralty.
The editor of this Voice of the North website has promised me it will happily grant right of response should you wish to start the ball rolling.