What should the new North of Tyne mayor’s priorities be?

The Tyne bridges. Image: Getty.

In November 2017, out of the ashes of a previously agreed North East deal, Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland signed up to a smaller and more limited devolution deal. The government set out plans to put more money, decisions and influence into the hands of local people.

The date for the first election is set for May 2019. As polling day approaches the political parties have begun picking their candidates: in February, Labour selected Jamie Driscoll. Here we look at the three things all challengers should have front of mind as they draft their manifestos:

1. Improving education and skills

The region offers huge attractions for many people. Newcastle is one of the most affordable major cities for housing on local wages, and commuters suffer less of the peak time congestion faced elsewhere.

But rather than being a benefit, these are a symptom of local wages, skills levels and employment rates in the city-region that fall below the national average. As the chart below shows, wages are £2 per week lower in the city than the national average, and the percentage of the working age population with no formal qualifications is 0.4 per cent higher.

The correlation between the proportion of workers without formal skills (x-axis), employment rate (y-axis) and wages (bubble size).

Cities should be outperforming the national average, not trailing it, so this is where candidates should devote their attention. Increasing residents’ skills across the board will be central to improving their ability to progress into and in work. From those still in education through to those already in work, the mayor should push to deliver a system of lifelong learning in the North of Tyne. It will also increase the areas attractiveness to the high skilled firms needed to drive future economic growth.

Any skills plan should have a clear sight of the impact of automation and globalisation on the local economy. The rise of the robots or AI to carry out routine tasks means that employers are looking for different range of softer, interpersonal and analytical skills. The candidates should recognise that their skills policy needs to be robot-ready and prepare local workers in the city-region for the future.

The devolution deal signed with the government makes clear that improving schools and skills is the primary ambition of the councils involved; this is absolutely the correct focus. Work is already underway and is aligned to and predates Centre for Cities’ calls for metro mayors to create skills compacts. Any prospective mayor should understand these plans and how they take them further.

2. Work beyond boundaries

The Centre for Cities definition of Newcastle’s economic impact is not limited to the north banks of the Tyne. Gateshead and South Tyneside are an integral part of a single built-up area with one functional economy. More than one in three of Gateshead’s residents commute to work North of the Tyne, as do 18 per cent of those in South Tyneside.

But while residents in these areas will have a material interest in the policies of the mayor, they will not have a say in May’s election. Despite this being less than ideal, Centre for Cities welcomed the North of Tyne deal as a victory for pragmatism over perfection. However, from day one, the incoming mayor should work as closely and collaboratively with partners across the Tyne to develop a joined-up economic policy that reflects how people live their day-to-day lives crisscrossing the river.

If successful, this may even prove the worth of the mayor to south of Tyne leaders, and the importance of having a say over who holds the job, by the time of the next election in 2024.

3. But beware the limitations of metro mayors’ powers

As we have seen in other city regions, a North of Tyne mayor, elected with 100,000-or-so votes, is likely to become the voice of the entire city-region to the government and media.  Most voters are unlikely to check the exact division of responsibilities for local public services and they will expect the mayor to fix problems outside of their control.

While mayors have informal ‘soft’ powers to convene, cajole and sometimes castigate local and national partners, their ‘hard’ powers are still limited and funding relatively small compared to the budgets of local authorities.  In fact, the North of Tyne mayor has even more limited powers than other metro mayors, lacking powers to franchise buses or lead on city-region transport as enjoyed elsewhere.

The candidates should, therefore, avoid the temptation to make big promises on popular public concerns that they don’t have the formal power to deliver on, such as ending rough sleeping. While they can use informal influence to make changes in areas such as this, as Andy Burnham has shown in Greater Manchester, they should not stake their mayoralty around them.

Instead, candidates should prioritise improving the outcomes of the things they do have control over. This means improving skills and helping people into work as set out above, and leading on strategic regeneration projects and transport infrastructure improvements. This will be a challenging job on its own.

The North of Tyne deal is a chance to get started on dealing with the significant challenges the region faces. It’s up to candidates now to set out how they will grasp that chance.

Simon Jeffrey is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.