Levelling-up the North East: Will a new mayor be the key to success?

By Tom Raines

In December 2022, the government announced that the North East would receive its own elected mayor, expected to be elected in the summer of 2024 as part of a £1.4 billion funding deal for the region. They would govern a region of more than two million people in Newcastle, Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham.

A new mayor for the region is the centrepiece of the government’s North East devolution project. This project is vital to the “levelling up” agenda, seeking to bridge regionalinequalities and increase the authority of local policymakers. A new North East mayor would hold authority over housing and transport, with £563 million of central government funding ringfenced for sustainable transportation in the region over the next three decades. These would be invested in improving metro and bus routes, with current local councillors promoting a potential expansion of park and ride systems and making public transport more reliable. Similarly, the mayor would be expected to increase the availability of housing on brownfield sites, which should improve the affordability of homes in the North East. Both these measures could have key benefits for students, allowing for low-cost, regular public transport and potentially acting to alleviate some of the Durham student housing shortage. Elsewhere, the mayor would have responsibilities for adult education, training and up-skilling the North East workforce. This would be a key part of the “levelling up” approach, helping increase the opportunities available to workers around the country and improving living standards.

Within the North East, a mayor and the surrounding mayoral authority may be best placed to solve chronic issues within the region. Given the monumental economic shift away from mining and heavy industry in the past half century, the North East now generates a lower proportion of the UK’s wealth than previously and has faced socioeconomic issues from this, not least low productivity. Coupled with this, failures arising from austerity have crippled public services in the North East, with roughly £413 less of central government funding per person per year across northern local authorities.

This would be a key part of the “levelling up” approach, helping increase the opportunities available to workers around the country and improving living standards.

In installing a North East mayor who is well-versed in tackling issues specific to the region, it is hoped funding decisions can be better allocated to maintain public welfare, whilst placing pressure on the government to ensure funding and support. Compared to the past decade, recent government policy towards the North East has been more supportive, such as the announcement of a new HM Treasury HQ in Darlington. With an experienced and informed mayor, it seems key progress could be made to deliver on the economic potential of the North East and provide improvements to living standards.

Although the announcement of a new mayor has strong potential, devolution projects in the North East are not new and previous attempts have seen limited progress. There is, for example, an existing North of Tyne mayoralty whose authority encompasses Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland. Formed in 2018, it was given an administration seeking to reduce regional inequalities. Meanwhile, the government drafted a devolution deal for the North East in 2016 as part of George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” project; this failed to ever be published, reflecting the capricious approach governments have taken to devolution.

Among existing councillors in the North East, there are some anxieties that a North East mayor and their administration would be dominated by Newcastle, failing to recognise the nuanced social and economic picture across the North East, which could mean mayoral projects could underdeliver in other localities such as Durham. Looking elsewhere in the UK, it seems that “metro mayors” are the key success of devolution projects. Particularly in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Tees Valley, directly elected mayors have been able to exert their influence on the government for funding and support whilst playing a key role
in delivering policies that improve people’s lives. For example, the regeneration of the Tees Valley airport – pioneered by local mayor Ben Houchen – has provided opportunities to up-skill workers and increase trade in the region. Coupled with this, the role of “metro mayors”, as representatives of often deprived areas, has given a political voice to many disenfranchised groups, with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham securing far more emergency funding for local businesses and furloughed workers than the government had been willing to concede during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is hoped similar effects could occur in the North East under a new mayor. Among most political circles, especially locally, it is perceived that a North East mayor would have great potential to deliver improved public services and “level up” regions that may have previously been considered left behind. Most significantly, a local representative would understand the unique history and socioeconomic environment the North East occupies, allowing for adaptable public policy that would best meet the needs of the North East.

Despite this, given that the North East devolution project is still in a consultative phase, and any mayoral election would not occur until at least the summer of 2024, much of this optimism should be treated cautiously and progress under a “metro mayor” is anything but guaranteed.

Image: Billy Wilson via Flickr

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