It’s a historic time for jobs

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Putting the focus of government attention on jobs has worked. It was not easy to do at a time when the country had been overspending so recklessly, and cuts were essential.

But there are now more people in work than ever before in our history – over 30 million – and the proportion of women in work is the highest since records began.

Unemployment has gone down in this constituency and, for the first time in many years, it has gone down in the North East as a whole. At the same time average wages have gone up by more than prices for the first time in years, while tax cuts for those on low pay, a policy straight from my manifesto at the last General Election, will cut tax by £800 for people on low to middle incomes.

None of this would have been achieved if the Liberal Democrats had not been prepared to join in a coalition, push for our priorities (like the tax cuts and the pupil premium) and take tough decisions to cut spending. As a party we would have had a much easier time not having to defend unpopular decisions, but I was not prepared to see us let the country down and nor were my colleagues. In a crisis you have to do what you believe to be right. There is so much more to do, especially to help those who are not getting enough help to find work or to sort out debt problems. But we have more chance of helping them if the whole country is not going bankrupt.

Keeping the power on

Lynemouth Power Station was the engine of the Alcan aluminium smelter, taking coal directly from the nearby colliery and supplying power to the smelter, selling its spare electricity to the National Grid.

When the smelter closed under Rio Tinto’s worldwide restructuring, I believed it was crucial to save the power station. It provides 200 jobs and, thanks to the cold waters of the North Sea, it is the most thermally efficient power station of its type in the country. The new owners, RWE, have pressed ahead with plans for conversion to biomass.

I have worked very closely with Energy Secretary Ed Davey, who used to be a key member of my staff, to help the power station get through the various hoops required for this conversion to take place. We are nearly there, with only a couple more processes to go through before we can be certain that vital jobs have been saved.

Morpeth or Ashington

I hope people in our area will make their views known on Labour’s plans to move the County Council headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington. Until the late 1960s the County Council offices were in Newcastle, in what is now the Vermont Hotel above the Tyne Bridge. The building was legally a tiny island of the County of Northumberland surrounded by the City of Newcastle. The move to Morpeth, where the foundation stone of County hall was laid by the Queen Mother, was meant to provide a location within the area of the cut down county (which had lost a lot of its most populated areas to Tyne and Wear) as centrally as possible.

Now it looks as if the Labour leadership wants the council to move to Ashington where it may take even less notice of the rural needs of the north and west of the county.

If very significant financial savings really can be achieved – and the figures will need to be examined very carefully – they have to be measured against the need to restore a sense that the county council is there to serve the whole county population, not just that half of the population which lives in the south east.

County jobs need to be located in the rural centres of Alnwick, Berwick and Hexham, which lost their district councils, where it has proved much more difficult to get any benefit from selling or leasing old council buildings than was forecast. And in Morpeth there will certainly be concerns about the scale of any redevelopment which might take place on the County Hall site.

Combined authority

But are we going to get an even bigger new council in the form of a ‘combined authority’ for the North East? No - this time all the councils in the north east will remain as they are, but they are getting together in a single body which will share power and get power from Whitehall to make decisions on transport, regeneration, economic development and tourism promotion.

Key decisions will have to be unanimous, which, remembering how awkward Sunderland was about setting up this body, might not be easy. Northumberland will keep its power over local bus services. There are necessary safeguards so that urban authorities on Tyneside can’t take away subsidies for our local buses to spend in the big towns.

These are some worries about it – there is a lack of rural representation on the combined authority which will be dominated by the Labour party because it currently runs all the councils in the area. But I still think this is a chance we should not miss to work together for the good of the region and get more power to make decisions that matter away from London. It builds on the successful idea of ‘city deals’ and makes these available to a wider area. Mind you, the name hardly rolls off the tongue.

Calling it North East officially was dropped after consultation. Its snappy title is The Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle Upon Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland Combined Authority. That must have put up the bill for headed notepaper and signwriting before they even start.