The region must formulate a “20-year vision” to support its own finances as a campaign for more devolution away from Whitehall gathers momentum, the leader of the region’s flagship city council has said.
Councillor Nick Forbes answered a string of questions on devolution yesterday as part of a live online chat on The Chronicle’s Facebook page on Monday.
The Labour leader of Newcastle City Council said: “This isn’t just a conversation between town halls and Whitehall, it’s crucial that local communities feel that they are part of the solution.
“Remote decision making is one of the reasons people feel powerless and disconnected from politics; knowing exactly who is responsible for what would be a great way to reinvigorate democracy.”
It comes as the North East Combined Authority - of which Coun Forbes is a member - consults on what responsibilities a regional power should request from Government.
When asked why a referendum was not being used to agree/block devolution, Coun Forbes said: “The problem with a referendum is that it reduces really complex issues to a ‘yes/no’ question. Our starting point should be to ask the question ‘what would make a real difference for our region’ and then negotiate with Government how to deliver it.
“That’s why we’re having a series of debates about what really matters to people - so that this isn’t a deal cooked up between politicians but is widely supported and understood by local people.”
Coun Forbes did not rule out standing for a mayor position should the position be created - something favoured by Tory Chancellor George Osborne - and called for views on the subject.
He said: “What we want is the Government to be serious about what powers and responsibilities they are prepared to devolve, eg transport planning, health budgets, housing investment resources.
“Greater Manchester have decided to have an Elected Mayor for their area - I’d be interested in peoples’ views on whether this would be the right solution for the North East.”
He told visitors to the page that regional leaders must find a way to support its own costs in the long-term.
He said: “If we simply ringfenced all tax receipts from Newcastle we would have less money than at present. In the short to medium term there will have to be a national formula for redistributing money around the country fairly, based on need.
“But my argument is that, by devolving powers, we can grow our economy faster - that’s the basis of the ‘City Deal’ I signed with Government in 2012. And if local areas can keep more of that money raised, to reinvest locally, we can turn around the sense that our region always has to rely on handouts. We should have a 20-year vision to be financially self-sustaining.”
When asked whether devolution of powers would swallow public funds, he said: “It should save our country money in the longer term - by better co-ordination of public services, and helping create more jobs and therefore increasing the amount of people in work and paying taxes. At the moment no-one is proposing an extra tier of politicians, so there shouldn’t be any costs there.”
Coun Forbes also stressed regional figures were working with politicians in Scotland, as Holyrood is expected to hold more power than ever.
He said: “HS2 trains will run to Newcastle on the current East Coast main line. Unless it’s upgraded in the next five years, this will lead to some significant bottleneck problems. That’s not in our interests, but it’s not in Scotland’s interests either - so on this we have a shared agenda to develop transport links north of the Border.”
The council leader added parish and town councils are also likely to play a greater role should more power be handed to the North East.
He said: “Personally I’d like to see more of them in Newcastle - we currently have 6 - and they do great work improving the local environment and engaging local people.
“Parish councillors are the unsung heros of many local communities. But - as you might guess - it’s not easy to set one up and the irony is that we have to ask permission of Government to do it.”
Coun Forbes added that job creation would be a priority for a North East power as the region still has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 8%.
He said: “It’s ridiculous that people in Whitehall hundreds of miles away are expected to know what kind of workforce our businesses will need in the future. And I’m passionate about attracting and retaining employers in the region; we have a great story to tell about the quality of life here.”
NHS budget devolution
Councillor Nick Forbes said local control of the health budget would help GPs understand social care provision.
It comes after councils in Greater Manchester were handed the area’s entire £6bn NHS budget by Tory Chancellor George Osborne.
Debate has been raging about whether or not this is a good thing, with Labour Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham urging caution.
He told reporters: “We all need to be vigilant against the danger that this Government is only offering to devolve a funding crisis and then blame us when things get worse.”
But his Labour colleague Coun Forbes said a similar arrangement for the North East would be positive.
He said during a live debate on devolution: “It’s [the Greater Manchester NHS spending devolution] a very good thing indeed. Like all public services, the NHS is coming under increasing pressure - and there’s not likely to be any significant increase in its budget after the election.
“So anything that can help integrate health and social care, and try to prevent people from having to go into hospital in the first place, must be a good thing.
“This can only be done by GPs talking to social care staff about which people need some additional support - the kind of planning that can only happen locally. So I see the Greater Manchester deal as a way of helping the NHS, not undermining it.”