The North East is a fantastic place, with hugely talented people and lots of exciting, fast-growing businesses. But it’s also true that the North East has been at the bottom of the pile for decades. Now the Northern Powerhouse – and the devolution deal that comes with it – gives us the chance to change our relationship with both the Government and local councils, and to do something about the crippling unemployment, low wages, skills shortages, and chronic underinvestment that has damaged our region for so long.
The North East’s council leaders did the right thing when they followed the example of Manchester and signed a devolution deal, unlike those in North and West Yorkshire who can’t come to an agreement, and so will wait longer to see the benefits of devolved powers.
However, we will only see the benefits if we make full use of the new powers on offer.
It is clear that the political situation in the North East is holding us back and has been for some time. Regions like Manchester that have already embraced devolution are growing faster than us. Our region’s political leaders blame all of our issues on Westminster, but they themselves have failed to find solutions to some of our biggest problems. By allowing us to elect a mayor, the devolution deal gives us the opportunity to challenge the North East’s political establishment and grab the opportunities open to us.
Top of the list of issues to deal with must be skills. We have far too many young people leaving school without a job, an apprenticeship or the offer of higher education – and too few are equipped with the high-level skills we need.
We need the right local leadership to drive through the changes we need – changes that we can make locally and have been proven in London and elsewhere. Devolution and a mayor can, and must, deliver that change for our young people.
The other big problem holding us back is funding for our businesses. We need to intervene to make sure that more of our entrepreneurs can get the money they need to grow – and create jobs. Too often in the past we have invested public money in new buildings – when what we really need is jobs.
We already have the best venture-capital offering for small businesses outside London, but this is just scratching the surface of the demand. Devolution and a mayor can focus on sourcing much more public and private investment on funding for our businesses – creating the jobs and higher pay this region needs.
The North East needs to develop well-thought-through policies that can address these issues, and many others.
That’s why I, along with Alastair Balls, the former head of the North East Development Corporation, founded North East Says Yes!, an online platform designed to generate new ideas.
The idea is to get people from all sectors, backgrounds, and parts of the region involved in shaping its future, rather than just leaving it in the hands of local authorities. We’ve already published thought-provoking pieces on infrastructure, investment, innovation, connectivity, and devolution, and will be adding more in the near future – all of which will be available to all future North East mayoral candidates.
In short, the reason I’m backing the Northern Powerhouse and North East devolution is that if the region continues on its current course, we will fall further behind the rest of the UK, meaning fewer opportunities for young people, fewer jobs (especially good jobs) and insufficient investment in our key infrastructure. We need to involve as many people as possible in the debate, or we risk replacing the Westminster elite with a regional elite and effectively changing nothing.
Jeremy Middleton CBE is an entrepreneur philanthropist and based in Newcastle. He been a board member of the North East LEP since 2011 and is chairman of the North East LEP Investment Fund.