Last week I was in London on the day of the Queen’s speech. Among all the pomp and ceremony there was a lot of background noise about the Northern Powerhouse.
I feel a clearer picture is now emerging about when changes under the Northern Powerhouse could come about and I’m forming a personal view of what we should start doing to secure the North East’s place within it.
Firstly, legislation confirming a Mayor for Manchester, together with the Mayor’s powers and financial structures, is likely to be before the House of Commons this autumn with voters likely to elect the first ‘Metro Mayor’ in May 2017.
It occurs to me that if some North East council leaders had taken George Osborne seriously when he came to the region in February, instead of engaging in a one-way bet on a Labour Government, we would not be so far behind. Now we need to catch up and that means stepping on the accelerator today.
Secondly, ministers are not going to tell us what new powers or resources they are going to give us, instead they expect the North East’s representatives to make a case for what we want.
However, it is absolutely certain that any extra powers or money must be accompanied by the acceptance of an elected Mayor. It was in the Conservative manifesto and, just as I would have expected a Labour Government to introduce a 50p tax rate, Labour politicians in the region should expect the Conservatives to introduce Metro Mayors.
There are still words like ‘negotiate’ being used by Labour leaders wanting to dilute the Mayor, but sticking on this point is just wasting time which would be better spent preparing a case for the matters we want devolved and establishing arrangements for a Mayor’s office and secretariat.
Let’s consider what powers and resources ministers could transfer quickly. Manchester has a full house; Police, NHS, and all economic and development tools. Its Mayor, and his or her powers, are contained within useful administrative boundaries that are coterminous with each other. In the North East our three police forces are not coterminous with the two LEP regions, so changes to the Police Commissioners are unlikely.
However, our Mayors could serve either the geography of each of the region’s LEPs or in the case of the NE LEP maybe the Mayor could serve Tyne and Wear, with other arrangements for Durham & Northumberland. Tees Valley is likely to be accepted as an entire area for a new Mayor.
So, what should a Mayor’s powers be in the North East? My own wish list would be:
Skills and employment, including taking over the administration of job centres and matching skills funding and employer recruitment to local sectors in local areas.
Transport, including roads and rail to integrate plans more effectively within established travel to work areas.
Economic development and the administration of the European money agreed between Brussels and the Government.
Sub-regional spatial planning, in order to logically plan zones for housing, business and industry across wider areas with the objective of cooling down ‘hot spots’ and warming up areas of decline.
Arts and culture, too much North East taxpayers’ money is spent on arts in London and we need to ensure we do not become a cultural wasteland.
There is also a case for Mayors to run the fire authorities.
If all or some of the powers suggested above were granted to elected Mayors the money that followed could be considerable and the office would be worth pursuing.
I have already talked to several well-known business leaders who would want to consider standing for the position (I hope they make themselves known publicly) and there are also some established politicians - in all parties - with the talent and experience to make the office work.
Once my term of office in the Institute of Directors is over I might even throw my hat in the ring for Tees Valley.
Even if the North East does make a coherent bid to ministers for more devolved powers, it is likely to be May 2018 at the earliest before we see the transfer come about; any more delays by North East leadership will result in the region being even further behind.
The Northern Powerhouse is a real policy, which is already corralling real resources, it is progressing with legislation and ministers - many of whom have roots in the North - are sincere in spreading wealth and power throughout England. The time for solid proposals is now.
Graham Robb is the chairman of the Institute of Directors in the North East and Senior Partner in Recognition Public Relations.