Labour will be told this week it needs a strategy for the North - and that the answer is not a return to a regional minister.
As party members gather in Brighton for Labour’s annual conference, one council leader has said he will be pushing for a stronger role for Northern councils.
Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes has said it is just as important that Labour knows what it will do with the North as it is for the Conservatives to, especially as the Tories are increasingly aware of their need to win seats in the northern regions.
But, Mr Forbes said, rebalancing the economy and helping the North reach its economic potential does not need to see a return to the days when “just one man in Whitehall was all we had”, and will tell party members they need to accept the new super-councils, the combined authorities, are the new power base they need to be speaking to.
Across the North East seven councils, from Northumberland to Durham, are to form a legally-binding combined authority tasked with jointly taking all major spending decisions, though there will be no change to local services and no elections to the new structure.
Mr Forbes said that this, rather than a new regional ministers, is the best way to give the region a powerful voice.
His comments though are likely to increase tensions with former regional minister Nick Brown, who has previously told The Journal the North East needs its own minister amid concerns Whitehall is not doing enough to tackle unemployment. During his time in the role Mr Brown was among the most dedicated backers of Nissan’s bid to bring electric vehicle production to the North East and for investment in the offshore energy industry.
The Newcastle East MP recently told an international arts organisation that it was wrong for councils to bluntly axe arts funding, seen by many at the civic centre as an attack on the council’s leadership.
Speaking from the Brighton conference, Mr Forbes said the region did not need further shake up.
“We have seen that regional ministers, and even regional development agencies, can be axed at whim, but a combined authority is a home grown solution to this.
“Labour wants evolution not revolution, so we need to start working now with the structures that will be in place, not look to cause yet more disruption with a return to old policies such as the development agencies.”
The council leader added that Labour now had to learn from its previous mistake in focusing too much on the needs of London and the South East.
He said: “Although we have some legitimate concerns about the disproportionate funding cuts across the North compared to the rest of the country, that does not mean that the answer always lies in public sector investment from Whitheall.
“We need to turn the investment that London has a right to costly infrastructure investment to our advantage, for example.
“We have a strong exporting capacity as a region here, with low transport infrastructure costs. The party needs to see that this makes the North East an ideal location from which to grow the economy.”
Mr Forbes and the six other council leaders are currently trying to hammer out agreements for the new combined authority ahead of the Government’s April deadline for the new legislation needed.
Not all Mr Forbes colleagues have agreed with him, with South Tyneside leader Iain Malcolm saying “it would do us no harm” to have a regional minister and a locally-led powerbase.
Mr Malcolm, a strong supporter of the new combined authority, said: “If we get the transport powers, the skills funding and the investment opportunities then the combined authority will make a real difference, but that only covers our part of the North East. It’s just as important for us that Teesside has strong support in Government. And while a combined authority will have real powers, a regional minister can still bring those Whitehall connections that are needed.”