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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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.