George Osborne signals he will press for a North East mayor under devolution deal

Chancellor said mayor would mean empowered local government held to account but Labour figures accuse Tory of trying to shift the devolution agenda

Hannah McKay/PA Wire Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne

Chancellor George Osborne has given the strongest signal yet he could pressure the North East to install a mayor as part of a devolution package.

The senior Tory said if local government was handed control over transport and budgets, its representatives must be more accountable and, in his view, “great cities” like New York and London have one figure the public can pinpoint.

It comes after Greater Manchester agreed a devolution deal with a mayor and as speculation mounts that similar arrangements for Leeds and Sheffield are being delayed because of deadlock over the role.

Mr Osborne said: “I think the whole package that Manchester is getting in terms of control over transport, budgets and the rest does need to have with it a point of accountability, an elected mayor.

“I think the great cities around the world have strong, elected mayors.”

He added: “I think if you want to have the full suite of powers that are normally associated with an elected mayor in almost any city in the world then that is the model of government.”

He said there was no “identikit model” but he was accused of trying to shift the devolution debate for party political ends. Labour politicians said it would leave too much power in the hands of one individual while many view a mayor as the Conservatives’ best hope of securing Tory leadership in the region.

The Chancellor added: “Of course, it is up to local people and local representatives to make their own decisions about how they want to organise themselves.

“Greater Manchester has chosen to go for a directly elected mayor but of course it is for the local politicians here in Newcastle to make their own decisions.”

Nick Forbes
Nick Forbes
 

He said he was in discussions with regional leaders and his “door is open”, but councillors say he has so far failed to engage with them.

On a visit to Newcastle, Mr Osborne added: “The city council was represented in discussions we had earlier and we are already devolving more decisions to local government and giving powers to local cities, but the whole package I think that you see Greater Manchester now going for needs with it the political accountability that comes with a directly elected mayor.

“I’m not trying to impose any model on anybody. I’m very much open to local areas to decide how they want to proceed.”

South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm, who also sits on the North East Combined Authority (NECA), said the Chancellor was being “disingenuous” by focussing on one figure.

He said: “There are a huge number of politicians here capable of stepping up to the plate and who can scrutinise those who are taking responsibility.

“It is disingenuous of George Osborne to say unless we have a mayor we cannot be held to account rather than saying these are the responsibilities the region will get and allow us to have the tools to get on and do the job.

“I just think he is trying to divert the devolution agenda to be about some sort of civic pride issue in the North East.”

Leader of Newcastle City Council, Councillor Nick Forbes, said: “The North East Combined Authority wrote to the Chancellor before the Autumn Statement asking to meet with him about a devolution deal for the North East. He says that his door is open but we have not heard from him despite his recent flying visit to the region.

“Where I do agree with Mr Osborne is that cities offer the greatest growth potential for UK plc and places like Newcastle are where the next generation of jobs will be created. We are simply asking for the tools to get on with the job that needs to be done rather than be set political hoops to jump through.”

Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council
Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council
 

However, this statement put Coun Forbes at odds with his colleague on the NECA, leader of Durham County Council Simon Henig, who said the focus should not be on Newcastle alone.

He added an insistence on a mayor could be a “show-stopper” for devolution if it was to represent the entire combined authority area from Northumberland to County Durham.

“Can that area be adequately represented by one individual?,” he said. “We need to have a debate with all stakeholders.”

He added: “Why should greater powers, which have the overwhelming support of the public, be dependent on a change in structure to include an extra tier of government? I don’t see why the two should be linked.”

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