Northern Echo/TeessideTogether, 15 March 2016
Dave Roberts is chairman of TeessideTogether, set up last year to campaign for greater unity across the area, including acceptance of ‘Teesside’ as its clear identity. He was the first to indicate his intention to stand for the elected mayor position being created as a result of the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Now he’s no longer seeking the role, arguing that it will have little real power for change. Here he explains why the Tees Valley devolution deal fails to meet the area’s real needs and challenges.
THE old adage that a week’s a long time in politics may well be true but sometimes it takes a little longer to realise that—to use another expression—the emperor has no clothes.
In my case it has taken four months to recognise that the hype over the so-called devolution deal, so rapidly embraced by our council leaders, is a distraction from the central issues facing our area.
In October, following the announcement of the proposal for an Elected ‘Metro Mayor’ as part of the Northern Powerhouse Agenda, a journalist asked if I intended to stand for the role.
I replied that I would be interested because, as a supporter of the principle of devolution, it might provide an opportunity to drive forward what I—and the group TeessideTogether which I chair—believe is the crucial need to end the fragmentation and lack of identity which is costly, inefficient and puts us at a serious disadvantage in competing with major players across the rest of the North and elsewhere.
Four months later and the reality is that the small print of the devolution deal means that, far from being a major force for progress and change, the Mayor will be a virtual prisoner of the status quo with the local authority leaders—the last group who want to see their fiefdoms put at risk—still firmly in control.
The label might say devolution but the reality is no real change. That is why I will no longer seek to take on the role.
Consider the facts—real power will rest with the ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ which by the way none of us have had a chance to vote for. It’s members?…you’ve guessed it, the leaders of the five authorities plus the Mayor.
Surely the Mayor will be able to implement the manifesto on which he or she is elected? No, because the leaders can veto any proposals, reject the Mayor’s strategies and amend spending plans. So much for a democratic mandate!
With public spending under unrelenting pressure surely it’s time to streamline the way we do business, ending the nonsense of five of everything, including, of course, five leaders and their allowances, five chief executives and their salaries…some bigger than the Prime Minister. In the last financial year councillors’ allowances across the five authorities were almost £3million!
Yet bureaucracy is being piled upon bureaucracy… five councils plus the Local Enterprise Partnership, the Combined Authority, the Mayor’s Office and the latest creation—the Mayoral Development Corporation.
Even those within the ‘inner circle’ feel uncomfortable. Councillor Sue Jeffrey, chair of the Shadow Combined Authority, said of this latest development ‘this can’t be just about new structures and boards.’
Once Governments—especially Conservative Governments—saw quangos as everything evil. Now they blossom on Teesside!
It is ironic that champion of this latest body is Lord Heseltine who as Secretary of State for the Environment drove forward the disastrous Local Government Review which ended for 20 years hopes of creating a strong and united Teesside.
The ‘devolution deal’ has been sold to us as a whole new start. The opposite is the case—the individuals and organisations currently in control will remain, with even more bureaucracies on top…and, of course, even more costs.
We are told it will bring us extra money–£15million a year across the five authorities. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to the cuts which will continue to bite even more viciously every year.
Stockton predicts further reductions of £21million over the next four years, Darlington is looking at further cuts of £12.5million, Middlesbrough is seeking a further £56million in cuts.
We launched TeessideTogether to encourage a proper debate about our area—facing up to the need for real change in the way we run things, recognising that ‘Tees Valley’ is false and failed brand and that only Teesside…or perhaps Teesside and Darlington if that would help bring the area together…is the only identity which enjoys strong support locally and real recognition in the rest of the world.
I hoped that an Elected Mayor could provide the catalyst for that debate and change. Now I recognise that won’t happen. I am not alone in that view—in the last few days local MPs Jenny Chapman and Andy McDonald have described the reality of the Northern Powerhouse as a ‘joke’ and ‘merely a political slogan.’
We deserve better than the shoddy deal being imposed on us without any real consultation, let alone the opportunity to vote. It is time for Teesside to come together and call for real change—and real devolution.