A powerful new mayor covering a huge swathe of the North East could be the cost of getting more power to the region, the chancellor has said.
In a broad-ranging speech on the need to create a “northern powerhouse”, George Osborne has said he will hand over more power to areas coming up with plan for their own Boris Johnson-style metro mayor.
Mr Osborne made clear that, as well as transport and economy opportunities, his plans included a return to directly-elected mayors presiding over a patch far bigger than conventional council areas. In the North East that is likely to mean a Tyne and Wear metro mayor.
The move was one of several polices announced at a keynote speech in Manchester yesterday, one in which the North East was effectively offered the chance of benefiting from closer links with Leeds and Manchester.
Mr Osborne said he could see the need for a more powerful North to rebalance the economic sway of the South.
The Chancellor said: “I grew up with the cliché that if it wasn’t happening in London, it wasn’t happening at all.
“And my time in Parliament has been shaped by another cliché: that the dice are unfairly loaded against the north; that our capital city to the south has sucked economic life and talent away from here.
“It’s the context of almost every media interview I’ve done here, from when I was first a parliamentary candidate to my time now as Chancellor.”
He added: “But something remarkable has happened here in Manchester, and in Liverpool and Leeds and Newcastle and other northern cities over these last thirty years too.
“The once hollowed-out city centres are thriving again, with growing universities, iconic museums and cultural events, and huge improvements to the quality of life.
“I feel the buzz and the energy every time I’m here.”
The Chancellor went on to raise the need for powerful new metro mayors, despite Northern cities such as Newcastle rejecting the proposals in 2012 referendums.
Mr Osborne said: “London has the advantage of a strong, recognisable city leader. The haircut that is recognised all over the world. Boris Johnson.
“There are big advantages in having an elected mayor to represent your city. To fight your corner in the world.
“So today I am putting on the table and starting the conversation about serious devolution of powers and budgets for any city that wants to move to a new model of city government - and have an elected Mayor.”
Mr Osborne was last night backed by David Skelton, director of the Renewal group trying to win back Tory support in the North.
The Durham campaigner said: “We all know that the region still has structural problems to overcome and it needs to go further to create the dynamic, private sector economy that we need.
“If we’re to have an economic future to match our proud past, we need bold visions and bold action.
“Essential to this is the right transport links and strong civic leadership.
“It’s crucial that the big cities in the region are linked to major towns and other big Northern cities, with fast, reliable transport connections.
“Inspirational civic leadership has never been more important. The North East doesn’t have the political power to match its economic potential, something that is holding our economy back.
“It’s time that our cities had elected Mayors with clout and the same power as the Mayor of London, with Whitehall being prepared to let go and devolve power over big decisions to Northern cities.
“The North East should welcome George Osborne’s announcement of greater spending on transport infrastructure and more devolution of power.”
Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes said that if the Chancellor wanted to show a real commitment to the region he would ensure high speed rail was built from the North to the South, with the North East allowed to join the new network.
“When it comes to city mayors, some people seem to have a scab they can’t stop scratching,” Mr Forbes said. “People voted against these plans in 2012, they should not be used to withhold power from cities that will not back them.”
Also warning against the Chancellor’s Northern focus was former North East minister Nick Brown.
The Newcastle MP said: “The Chancellor’s speech is confused and contradictory. He is not offering to pay for the rail connections that he advocates. The elected Mayor idea has already been rejected in Newcastle and many other English cities by the voters.
“He is advocating an elected Mayor to deal with crime in direct contradiction to the role of the Police Commissioners that the Conservative Government has just brought in. As always with George Osborne, it doesn’t solve any problem for the North East that we actually face.”