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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”