North East politics 2014: Jonathan Walker looks back at the events of 2014

Jonathan Walker looks back on the events that shaped 2014 in the region

It was a year of achievements for the North East, as the long-running campaign to dual the A1 celebrated victory at last - or partial victory anyway - and local authorities set aside their differences to join forces and demand a better deal for the people they represent.

But it was also a year of agonising decisions, as councils continued to face crippling funding cuts which left them struggling to provide services.

And MPs highlighted the impact of poverty on their constituents, with Labour claiming that the Government’s by boasts about fixing the economy contrasted starkly with the difficulties faced by many people in the region.


MP Ian Lavery
MP Ian Lavery

Local authorities began the new year reeling from the announcement shortly before Christmas that the latest round of Government cuts would see North East councils lose £62m in funding in 2015, on top of cuts of almost £68 million to come into effect in 2014.

And figures published by the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed that many councils in the North East will be hit much harder than those in other parts of the country.

North East Chamber of Commerce warned the cuts would threaten the economic recovery.

And representatives of 12 North East councils joined MPs at Westminster to warn that further cuts will hit vital services such as social care.

The delegation met Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis.

Also in January, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery led calls for an inquiry to find out the truth behind the government’s role in the miners’ strike in 1984, after newly-released Cabinet papers revealed that senior ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, discussed the National Coal Board’s plan to shut 75 pits - despite denying there was any such plan at the time.


Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham
Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham

Hexham MP Guy Opperman called for reform of air passenger duty to give airports outside the south east a fairer chance of competing against Heathrow.

The issue of air passenger duty, and its impact on airports such as Newcastle International and Durham Tees Valley, would return later in the year.

A major report by the Living Wage Commission warned that 221,000 workers in the North East were paid less than the “living wage”, the amount judged by academics to be enough to live on.

Newcastle City Council was the first local authority in the country to introduce a living wage, ensuring no staff were paid below the sum, and others, such as Northumberland, have followed suit.


Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson
Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson

Thoughts began to turn to the Scottish independence referendum, and the impact it could have on the North East if Scots gained more control over their own affairs.

Some MPs were less concerned about Scotland breaking away - which they thought unlikely - than about the promises that might be made to the Scots to convince them to stay.

Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson warned the Labour leadership that further devolution to Scotland could hurt the North East economy.

In particular, he urged his party not to give Scotland control over income tax or air passenger duty.

In the event, his fears came to pass and those two powers are indeed to be given to Scotland.

Meanwhile, seven councils in the North East secured Government backing to form a Combined Authority.

It sees Durham County Council, Gateshead Council, Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council, South Tyneside Council, Northumberland County Council and Sunderland City Council form a legally binding structure with the power to borrow cash and the responsibility to share risk.

George Osborne delivered his annual Budget statement, with cuts in income tax, cheaper beer and a cut in duty on bingo at the heart of it.

And the controversial contest for the East Coast Main Line franchise was launched, despite Labour calls for the existing state-owned operator to continue.


Vincent Cole Ed Miliband MP, leader of the Labour Party
Ed Miliband MP, leader of the Labour Party

Labour leader Ed Miliband announced plans to bring back the position of Minister for the North East as part of a radical package of measures to devolve power to the regions.

It was the first of a number of Labour announcements about plans to reform the way English regions are governed, as Labour and the Government competed to prove who would do most to support the regions.

A Labour government would strip Whitehall of funding and hand the money to local authorities to spend on transport, housing, training and programmes to get unemployed people into work, Mr Miliband said.

The North East had a regional minister under the last Labour government, with the post being held by Newcastle upon Tyne East MP Nick Brown, but the post was scrapped when the Coalition came into power.

North East arts bodies told a Commons inquiry that funding cuts had hit the arts and cultural bodies in the region.


Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Michael Gove
Michael Gove

Education Secretary Michael Gove criticised North East schools, telling the House of Commons: “Across the North East the level of educational ambition has been too low for too long.”

He was moved to a different job by David Cameron later in the year, possibly because he has upset too many people.

A hard-hitting report by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct, which includes Lord Beecham, the former leader of Newcastle City Council, warned that women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities may be put off taking part in Britain’s political system because of abuse or threats of physical attacks.

Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West and the Shadow Equalities Minister, highlighted the findings as she spoke in the Commons.


Lord Michael Heseltine
Lord Michael Heseltine

North East MPs raised concerns about transport investment, as a Commons inquiry demanded an unfair funding system which means the North East is starved of transport cash must end.

The Commons Transport Committee demanded action to end a bias in favour of London, which means funding for transport infrastructure such as new rail stations or road schemes comes to £2,595 per person in the capital but just £5.01 in the North East.

But MPs criticised a new funding system due to come into effect next year which puts Local Enterprise Partnerships, bodies led by employers and backed by local authorities, in charge of improving local transport.

There were warnings in the House of Lords that the North East justice system was in chaos, as Lord Beecham accused the Government of “botched and expensive re-organisations” including cuts to legal aid.

A Commons inquiry called for tougher laws to protect monkeys, bought online as pets.

And Tory peer Michael Heseltine, who advised the Government on a 2012 referendum in Newcastle on whether to create a mayor, revealed he wanted Ministers simply to impose a mayor on the city without a vote.


Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

As Labour’s policy on regional affairs continued to take shape, party leader Ed Miliband announced plans to take £30bn from Whitehall to boost the regions.

He also said that councils under a Labour government will be allowed to keep any future sums they raise from local business taxes, effectively rewarding authorities if they succeed in encouraging economic growth and attracting employers.

The Government announced a major package of investment in the North East, as David Cameron revealed plans for new business parks, transport improvements and a campaign to ensure the region’s schools match the best in the country.

Almost £400m was awarded to the region from the Government’s flagship Local Growth Fund.

Not to be outdone, Mr Miliband revealed that labour would reverse a “century of centralisation” by giving local authorities a bigger role providing vital local services.

And spare a thought for Hexham Conservative MP Guy Opperman - who told the annual conference of a Conservative think tank called Bright Blue that “it’s a very lonely, very interesting, business” being a Conservative in the North of England.


Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

This was the month that Chancellor George Osborne’s plans for a “Northern Powerhouse” became clear.

While attention inevitable tends to focus on announcements of high-budget schemes, such as a possible new high speed rail line across the Pennines, what’s most striking is the ambition of his vision.

The Chancellor talks about creating one economic area in the North which will be able to compete with the capital on something like equal terms.

In effect, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle would become one giant city in economic terms. The key is to create transport links making it as easy to get from one to the other as it is to get from east London to West London.

In practice, however, many of the announcements since then appear to have focused on investment in Manchester.

This may be because ten authorities in Greater Manchester have agreed to elect a mayor, an idea the Chancellor is very keen on.

Cynics, however, might notice that the Chancellor’s own seat, Tatton in Cheshire, isn’t too far from Manchester.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg launched his own rival scheme to back the north, called Northern Futures.

Meanwhile, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett told The Journal in an interview that controversial on-shore wind farms are here to stay because they are the cheapest form of renewable energy.


PA/PA Wire Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow
Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow

Commons Speaker John Bercow found himself under fire as MPs criticised the appointment of a new Commons clerk - possibly code for various other complaints they have about him.

Northumberland Lib Dem MP Sir Alan Beith was one of those asking questions.

The Government suffered a rare Commons defeat as Lib Dems and Labour combined to try to change the rules governing the bedroom tax.

MPs voted to ensure tenants only had their housing benefit cut if they had actually been offered a smaller home to move in to.

There was more debate about the impact of Scottish independence, as County Durham MP Phil Wilson said the rest of the world would no longer take the UK seriously if Scotland quit.

But by the time the referendum vote was held, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all looked weak.

The leaders of the three major parties at Westminster signed a last minute “vow” promising further devolution to the Scots, in what looked like a panic measure.

Ed Miliband, in his annual party conference speech, announced plans to heal the NHS with 20,000 extra nurses - but speaking without notes, he handed a gift to Tory critics by failing to mention plans to cut the deficit.

Conservative Chancellor George Osborne used his conference speech to pledge to close North-South wealth gap.


Roberta Blackman-Woods
Roberta Blackman-Woods

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg pledged that developing North East would be at the heart of his general election manifesto.

And he threw his backing behind ambitious £15bn plans to transform the transport network across the North, known as One North.

There was concern about safety precautions at North East airports once Parliament returned from the summer break, with Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods calling for Ebola screening at Newcastle Airport.

She told the Commons she was surprised when she travelled into Newcastle Airport via Brussels from west Africa - and was not screened or even asked whether she had come into contact with the disease.

The issue of pit communities, which had been raised throughout the year, was the subject of a major Commons debate as the Labour front bench led calls for investment to create jobs.

MP Ian Lavery, a former President of the National Union of Mineworkers, said: “Addressing the on-going problems in the former coalfield communities is essential.”

And in another announcement on regional policy, Labour leader Ed Miliband said he would chair a Cabinet of the English Regions bringing together leaders of major cities such as Newcastle and Government ministers if he becomes Prime Minister


Coun Nick Forbes, leader Newcastle City Council
Coun Nick Forbes, leader Newcastle City Council

Chancellor George Osborne announced a fresh round of funding for Manchester - and made it clear that other regions will have to follow Greater Manchester’s example and elect a city-region mayor if they want a similar deal.

Council leaders in the North East don’t appear to be keen on the idea.

Labour announced plans for a Senate of regions and nations to replace the House of Lords.

And Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes warned the city faced “impossible” funding cuts - and predicted they could provide a boost for extremist parties and organisations.


Anthony Devlin/PA Wire Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne

Chancellor George Osborne insisted his plans to boost the North were “at the heart” of his Autumn Statement, as he announced plans for a science centre in Newcastle, a centre for advanced manufacturing in Sedgfield and a “Great Exhibition” to celebrate the great art, culture and design of the North.

But his key statement on the nation’s finances also confirmed that local councils face years of further deep cuts.

And a North East peer warned his plans for massive cuts in public spending would cause “major difficulties” in a range of public services and could hit the NHS.

Businessman Lord Wrigglesworth, former Member of Parliament for Stockton South, said he believed voters had not yet grasped the scale of the cuts the Government was planning.


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