Jeremy Middleton, founder of Middleton Enterprises

By Jeremy Middleton

George Osborne has offered the North East a once in a lifetime opportunity for devolution and for regeneration. At the moment it's not clear whether our local leaders will seize that opportunity, although I am optimistic that they will.

The Chancellor has made an offer to all the great Northern city regions. To transfer powers and responsibilities for infrastructure, skills, transport and business support to local decision makers. That is provided we accept a directly elected mayor to provide leadership, accountability, and capacity that he, and many others, believe our local authorities operating in competitive silos are incapable of offering.

This opportunity has been open for some years now. Manchester has already established a mayor, secured new powers and, indeed, won significant new resources. The major cities in Yorkshire are well advanced down the same path. All have accepted the principal of directly elected mayors. Our leaders in the North East have not and, as a result, we have not even started negotiations with the Government.

I have yet to hear any serious voices make a good case that power and money that is currently spent in the North would not be used better by having those decisions made locally. Indeed, it is ironic that the very members of the Labour Party who argued in favour of an impotent regional assembly of politicians in 2004, are now resisting the transfer of real responsibilities to a directly elected mayor. Indeed, I am sure that, had these proposals been put forward by a Labour government, our leaders would have been the first to endorse them!

If we want devolution then we have to accept a directly elected mayor. I think it’s time that we embraced a system that could have major advantages.

First, a mayor could give us more effective leadership and a more effective voice. Disparate voices representing political silos does not hack it. We need to bring a sense of urgency to the reforms we all know are needed here in the North East. A Scottish government with powers over tax and spending is a trading opportunity – but also a competitive threat to the North East. We need leadership that can negotiate with Scotland and with Westminster to ensure that we aren't side-lined economically. A leader directly elected, on a manifesto they have to stand by, offers the potential for such leadership. The tangled web that produces the seven leaders that comprise the North East Combined Authority (ever voted for that?) may have many virtues but it is not accountable, transparent or democratic in my book.

Second, it could give us a better chance of fairness in the North East. Scotland gets more public spending per head despite being a wealthier part of the country. The North East loses out on transport spending, arts spending and a good deal more to London and has done so under both Labour and Conservative governments. Our local politicians under the heel of their party whips have done a poor job of winning us a fair deal here in the North East. It would be the job of the mayor to demand – and to deliver – a fair share.

Third, it offers the best opportunity for more and better jobs. The LEP commissioned the North East Economic Review which, under Lord Adonis, set out what needed to be done to make our economy one of the strongest in the country. My colleagues on the LEP Board have achieved a good deal securing investment in infrastructure (have you noticed the cranes in action around the North East?) and pushing forward on lots of fronts. However, the LEP is a partnership with local authorities and lacks the muscle to push through what needs to be done. We need a step jump in some of our schools’ performance, we need more businesses to offer our young people apprenticeships, we need to put real resources into marketing the North East again, we need much better inward investment support, we need many things! But we can only drive these things through if we have one strategy, one plan and one team. Surely, the time for seven local authorities in the NELEP area running seven lots of everything is over - we can and we must do more.

Local leaders are of course worried about the implications for each of their authorities and are suspicious of an initiative from a Conservative government. But this government has made it clear it won't impose a solution - this is an invitation to the table. If we can't raise our game and accept the challenge of a directly elected mayor then we will just be left behind.

So, could a mayor deliver the North East better leadership? Would it win us a better settlement from Government? Would it deliver more and better jobs? Well, that depends on what sort of mayor we ask for. In my view, the main thing is that we start. I prefer a giant leap, but I would accept baby steps. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s start with a mayor covering the North East LEP area that takes responsibility for new powers that are currently decided in London. Let’s see what sort of mayor we get. Maybe that will be the end of it, just a modest change in local government administration attracting about as much interest as directly elected police commissioners! However, perhaps a new mayor would argue for more change along the lines that I have described perhaps taking over spending decisions from many government departments. Maybe over time people will like those changes, and maybe if people like them enough they’ll think it’s worth voting in local elections once again.

We can choose to do nothing and let other regions secure the powers and resources on offer - or we can seize the day. I believe we should seize the day.

Jeremy Middleton is founder of Middleton Enterprises, a £50m investment company based on Tyneside. He is also a board member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

ENDS

ISSUED ON BEHALF OF MIDDLETON ENTERPRISES

CONTACT: Paul White on 01325 363436

Notes to Editors:

Middleton Enterprises Ltd is a private investment company that has made a substantial contribution to the North East’s economy by investing in and providing business advice to entrepreneurial businesses.

During recent years, it has supported a number of North East businesses, generally from start-up, usually taking a minority stake and offering strategic advice to support growth.

Jeremy Middleton

Mr Middleton is a high-profile entrepreneur and philanthropist based in Newcastle. He started his career as a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble before working for PriceWaterhouseCoopers as a Marketing Consultant. He co-founded HomeServe, now a FTSE 250 company which operates in the UK, the USA, France, Spain and Italy, and remains a shareholder with a seat on the Executive Committee. He is a director at North East based energy and water consultancy company Utilitywise PLC.

Mr Middleton and his family are active supporters of Maggie’s Centre and World Vision, an international charity which works to improve the lives of people in developing countries.

Mr Middleton has carried out a range of sponsored fundraising for a variety of charities which to date include the North Pole, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, The Haute Route, Mount McKinley, Mount Elbrus and a cycle ride from London to Paris.

Mr Middleton has been a Board Member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) since 2011 and is Chairman of the North East LEP Investment Fund, which makes recommendations to the LEP Board for the £25m Growing Places Fund and the £30m Infrastructure Fund.

In 2012 Jeremy was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for Services to Politics and Charities.

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Jeremy Middleton, founder of Middleton Enterprises
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