Calls for a new “combined” local authority covering Tyne and Wear have been backed by one of the region’s most senior political figures.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Shipley said it was time to seriously consider the case for a body which would bring together key functions currently controlled by local councils on Tyneside and Wearside.
Lord Shipley, former leader of Newcastle City Council, pointed to what had been achieved in Manchester as a potential model for the Tyne and Wear region.
Last April, the 10 authorities in Greater Manchester became the first in the country to develop a statutory “combined authority” to co-ordinate key economic development, regeneration and transport functions. In last month’s Budget, the city was singled out by Chancellor George Osborne for £1.2bn in support to help the city fund its own ambitious infrastructure projects.
Lord Shipley’s comments followed a similar call by South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm earlier this year.
Coun Malcolm argued that a single body would make it easier to make key strategic decisions, whilst matters such as planning and licensing could still be determined on a local basis.
The former Tyne and Wear County Council was abolished in 1986, with its districts becoming five unitary authorities.
Lord Shipley, who was addressing a group of business leaders at a Core Cities dinner at law firm Muckle LLP in Newcastle, said it was a suggestion that deserved serious debate in the North East.
In wake of the abolition of One North East, he said it was also essential that the region developed a “narrative” about its strengths and aspirations to help attract inward investment.
That challenge would become even more important should Scotland secure additional powers either as a result of a ‘yes’ vote for independence in the forthcoming referendum or for so-called “devo-max” – a devolved parliament but with additional powers.
He said that there was already evidence that the region was missing out to Scotland. Last month Spanish renewable energy giant Gamesa revealed it had chosen to invest £125m in a new site at Leith, Edinburgh, rather than Hartlepool whilst online retail giant Amazon also invested north of the border rather than in North Tyneside.
“In the absence of a government office in the North East and a regional development agency, the North East needs to have a clear leadership which is outward facing and promoting the region,” said Lord Shipley.
He urged residents of Newcastle to vote for an elected mayor in May, suggesting such a figure could provide leadership not just for the city but, eventually, the wider region. This echoes a suggestion from former Lord Heseltine, chairman of the Regional Growth Fund, on a recent visit to the North East.
“Newcastle working closely with Gateshead is the regional capital,” said Lord Shipley.
“The North East needs a narrative. We need to develop a common purpose to work together.”
The business leaders in attendance at the Muckle event quizzed Lord Shipley on a wide range of issues, from concerns over the region’s transport infrastructure to exports, skills shortages and the impact tougher border controls on the ability of North East universities to attract overseas students. There was widespread agreement amongst those present that a lack of “leadership” was holding the North East back but concerns were expressed about who could fulfil such a role.
On the issue of proposed regional pay in the public sector, Lord Shipley said it was right to debate the issue. However, he said he had seen little evidence to back up claims from business leaders that the private sector was being harmed by the current arrangements.