Jeremy Middleton: We either act as unified North East and succeed or stay fragmented and risk being landed with a weak deal

Jeremy Middleton says the North East has made progress in the race for new powers - but we must now do much more

© www.neildenham.co.uk Jeremy Middleton
Jeremy Middleton

As the General Election dust starts to settle, now is the time for the North East to put the structures in place to best embrace a future that will include devolved powers and spending.

Durham County Council leader, Coun Simon Henig, is absolutely right when he says we have to move quickly to get a good deal for the North East.

The new Government has a mandate to lead the whole country, and a will to give power to the regions.

It is in the Conservative manifesto to embrace mechanics, such as Metro Mayors, and here in the North East we need to approach the future with an open heart, not a clenched fist.

However, while there is a real need to move fast, with other regions and, of course, Scotland already ahead of us in terms of progressing their regional control over taxes and spending, we can’t get the best from this without change within the North East.

We have a golden opportunity to make a big offer to the Government, and that offer must include two things our current structure lacks; democracy and a credible delivery vehicle.

There has been lots of progress made in the North East, with the local authorities and the Local Enterprise Partnerships working together.

The evidence is pretty clear that the North East LEP area, covering seven local authorities, and Tees Valley Unlimited are the right economic geographies.

However, there is still too much work being done in silos. Our local authorities may be combined in name, but they still have their own chief executives, their own economic development teams, their own education departments, and so on. As much as I admire the efforts so far, this just won’t cut it if we want to make significant progress.

Economic danger looms from north of the Border and across the Pennines, where strong deals are being implemented, with threats to our airports and other parts of our economy.

If we are going to compete with Scotland, we need to make the powers within the region more democratic.

Area-wide decisions, which are going to affect people’s lives, need to be made transparently, with accountability, through the ballot box if possible. Currently, we have none of this.

We are either going to act as a unified North East and succeed, or we will remain fragmented and risk a weak deal that leaves us lagging behind other parts of the country.

Within our regional and local bodies, we have plenty of people capable of delivering finance, education, infrastructure and so much more, and we know what needs to be done.

The Adonis Review spelt this out and the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan shows how we can turn this into reality – however, we must work better together.

One possible solution is to embrace the Metro Mayor option, with a genuine combined authority under an elected figurehead, who will act as a voice for the region, a focal point for ideas and offer more streamlined and cost effective delivery of the things our region needs.

Others may have their own, very workable, ideas about how we can create a strong, democratic delivery vehicle for the whole North East. We must seize the day and the region should either back this route or make a case now for their own proposed way forward.

Jeremy Middleton is founder of Middleton Enterprises, a £50m investment company based on Tyneside. He is also a board member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

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