The drive towards devolution could damage the unity the North East has as a region

Unison regional secretary Gill Hale on why we should be asking the parties where they stand on the North East's future

Angel of the North
Angel of the North

What do you think of when you think of the North East? I think of it as a region that covers Teesside, Wearside, Durham, Tyneside and Northumberland. A region that has a clear identity, encompassing rural, urban, commercial and industrial centres. A region with a proud history but one keen to embrace regeneration and attract inward investment to become a powerhouse for creating a successful economic future for us all.

Now discussions are underway about devolution for the region following the creation of the North East Combined Authority and the proposed Combined Authority for Tees Valley.

Unison is a major stakeholder in the region and committed to playing a key role in the shaping our future. The public and the private sector are interlinked. Both need to be working towards creating a viable region that meets the needs of those living here and delivers the vibrancy that we need to attract inward investment and put us on the European and world stage as a region to do business in.

Unison believes that for this vision to become a reality there has to be an equal recognition of the vital role that the public sector plays in delivering services relied on for our communities and individuals. Investing in the public sector creates a climate for economic growth, reducing unemployment levels especially youth unemployment, and delivers fairness for all. Unison is committed to economic strategies geared to delivering economic growth, good jobs and social justice.

The region has some of the highest levels of poverty in the country and Unison is also committed to tackling this scourge that blights the lives of so many. In some parts of Newcastle one in two children are living in poverty. 10 of the North East local authorities have child poverty levels above the UK average. I find it appalling that in the 21st century we have people suffering in-work poverty. Workers deserve a living wage so they can live with dignity.

The public sector is a major contributor to the regional economy and the job market, particularly in local government and health. Unison is a key voice for public sector workers.

Since 2011 Unison has been campaigning for an economic strategy that will create demand in the economy, will create employment through investment in skills and the infrastructure, and that sees investment in public services as a boost to the economy. Unison believes, along with leading economists, that the Government’s austerity measures are hindering the region’s economic recovery.

Since 2010 the region has lost approximately 59,000 public sector jobs, but the sector still represents one in four jobs in the region. I believe that an investment in the public sector will help a regional transition to a balanced economy and attract inward investment.

The Government’s savage public sector funding cuts have had a dramatic impact on this region. I acknowledge the appeal of having additional funding coming directly from central government to the region, but I have reservations about this being equitable distributed across the region.

In the past I was a member of the Regional Development Agency and I have real concerns that a drive to devolution will damage the unity that we have as a region, and the emerging of two potentially competing areas, the North East comprising seven local authorities and Tees Valley comprising five local authorities.

I recognise that local initiatives have to meet local needs. I also believe that we need to have an over-arching regional strategy that works equitably for our communities and delivers fairness for all which is open, transparent and democratically accountable.

European funding is partly accessed on a regional basis. We have already seen £724m of European funding currently in jeopardy following the demise of One North East and the introduction of the Local Enterprise Partnerships which is causing the European Commission serious concerns.

How will there be a regional strategy for our economy and equitable access to European Structural and Investment Funds, in addition to Social Funding with competing Combined Authorities? European funding has contributed significantly to regeneration projects across the region as a whole.

While we are in the process of discussing devolution within the region, I would urge you to consider the vital role that the public sector plays in delivering quality of life for all.

During the campaigning period for the General Election ask those seeking your vote where they stand on the future of the region, and if you value your health service, your local libraries, youth services, social care, your community and environmental safety then use your vote wisely. If you care for it, vote for it.

Gill Hale is regional secretary of Unison

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