The well-attended event, hosted by Alnwick Area Friends of the Earth on Tuesday (April 23) night, saw four of the five hopefuls appear – John Appleby (Lib Dem), Jamie Driscoll (Labour), Charlie Hoult (Conservative) and John McCabe (Independent). Ukip’s Hugh Jackson was invited but unable to attend.
Given the organisers, the main focus of the night was environmental issues, but the debate and questions also spread into other related topics such as housing, transport, mental health, jobs and economic regeneration.
All of the candidates received applause at different points from the engaged audience, but there were also jeers for unpopular responses and calls to answer the question properly if it was felt they had avoided doing so.
The four were given a chance to provide an introduction before the questions started.
John Appleby (JA) said that the devolution deal ‘is a rather limited one, but the best we have got for now’, adding that the main job of the new mayor is two-fold; communication – being a voice within the region and with government and beyond, and coordination, helping the three authorities to work together, public and private sector, and government.
“The powers of this mayor, though limited, don’t stop this person, whichever one of us it is, being a very effective champion for lots of things, including the environment,” he said.
Jamie Driscoll (JD) outlined his key policy for a Green Industrial Revolution, which includes declaring a climate emergency in the area and creating a community-owned green energy company.
He said: “It’s important to note the Green Industrial Revolution is not just some environmental policies, it’s about a large, coordinated set of policies to create environmental, economic and social sustainability together.
“It’s not simply the case that we just make some lifestyle changes and everything works, it’s the fundamental nature of how we choose to organise our transport, how we plan our housing, the distance we fly our food around the world.
“All of these things need to be addressed, some of which we can do with the position of North of Tyne Mayor, others we’re just going to have to lobby for.”
Charlie Hoult (CH) said: “What you get with me is experience. I have done this stuff before and I’ll be doing it again as mayor.”
He outlined his background, with his first job being working on ethical investment research with Richard Adams, the founder of Traidcraft, and a book he wrote, Living Green, about his experiences cycling around the UK.
After describing his subsequent business career in London and then back in the North East, he went onto his idea of the role of mayor, which has ‘an extremely large remit but a very small initial budget’, meaning it’s ‘about building the team, building trust, getting some early wins to deliver’.
He highlighted jobs for school leavers and town-centre renewal as two of his key manifesto pledges.
John McCabe (JM) said: “I’m the independent candidate in this race and this is all new to me, I have never stood for public office before and I’m not a politician.”
He said his status was a double-edged sword in that he didn’t have the resources and financial backing of a political party, but he ‘can be completely straight and call it as I see it’, putting forward ‘common-sense solutions’ without ‘political dogma’.
He added that collaboration was the key to create ‘a fairer economy, a fairer society that works for all of us, a greener society’, but all ‘underpinned by a stronger economy’.
Ukip’s Hugh Jackson provided a statement which was made available to attendees but also summarised by the event’s compère, Mike Powell.
Mr Jackson said: “I am convinced that, deep down, we all want the same things; prosperity, security, health and wellbeing. However, we tend to fight and squabble far too much about the ways to achieve those means.”
He set out his goals for jobs, housing, transport and energy, as well as addressing biodiversity.
There were groans from the audience as Mr Powell summarised his suggestion that ‘climate change is not necessarily as much man-made as is generally claimed’, but ‘that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the ill-effects of poisoning the atmosphere and he’s sure that we have no option but to develop clean, replaceable fuels’.
Below is a selection of the night’s questions and some of what the candidates said in response.
What would be the actual first thing you would do to tackle global warming here in the North East?
JA: I think I’m probably coming across a bit downbeat at these hustings, but that’s because the mayor doesn’t have a great deal of power, but of course I’m standing for this role because I want to see change. The first thing I would do is try to build relationships with the three local authorities and other relevant bodies. There’s an awful lot the mayor has to champion and promote, but can’t do directly.
JD: It’s very easy to say you want a fairer, greener society without saying how you are going to do it. The first thing you do is declare a climate emergency and that involves creating a climate change liaison group to come up with a plan to get us net carbon zero. That includes things like changing planning so that any new property has solar generation on it. We manufacture photovoltaic cells in the region so that creates jobs as well.
JM: I think with a lot of these issues we have to fix the cause before we can fix the outcome. I hear what John is saying about the mayor’s limited powers, but I think that’s a bit of a cop-out, if I look at what Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, has achieved. I would start with what our region’s strengths are – we have got a really strong base on which to build in terms of research and development on our renewable industries.
CH: I’m a cyclist and I go to meetings on my bike. So leading by example, coming to meetings like this having used public transport, got the train, got the bus, unfolded my bike and come in my yellow hi-viz vest with my helmet on is proof that it’s possible. Two per cent of the journeys in Newcastle are by bike, but we should be going Dutch, it should be more than 20, although it would be nice to have a target to get to eight to 10 per cent.
Will you commit to the region being carbon-neutral by 2030, will you support the call to declare a climate emergency and what is your position on the youth climate strike?
JD: I’m a Newcastle city councillor, we declared a climate emergency and I was one of the ones pushing for that to be part of the Labour group’s policy in the local elections and we have indeed declared that and that we will do everything we can to make Newcastle zero net carbon by 2030.
It’s both wonderful and saddening that it took a 16-year-old girl to get the world to wake up to this. We’ve been telling people to take this seriously.
JM: In terms of being carbon-neutral by 2030, the mayor’s term of office takes him up to 2024 and the next term goes up to 2028, so I can’t promise you that.
I love the passion and enthusiasm that went into the youth climate strike. In all honesty, my generation and the generation that most of us in the room belong to, we have messed it up a little for some of that generation so the fact that they are prepared to take these issues on is fantastic.
Declaring a climate emergency is a great soundbite, but if we don’t have one in the south of Tyne, if we don’t have one over the border in Scotland, if we don’t have one in the North West, I’m not sure what that achieves.
CH: Back to me for practical action. I have seen all the stuff about climate strikes, for me, it’s about teaching my kids to use less loo paper, use less plastic, switch off the light, wear a jumper instead of putting the heating on, put less washing on. If they’re going to campaign in school time, they should also be campaigning in holiday time, because it’s the little things we all have to do that are going to make the bigger impact.
JA: I think it’s necessary for people to start taking this much, much more seriously and for that reason I think it’s (climate emergency) a good label, but it is only a label. We have to say what we are going to do to follow that.
The youth climate strikes are fantastic. A few years ago if you banged on about the climate, people thought you were a crank. They don’t anymore. We have moved on a bit, but you’re still a bit of an uncomfortable presence, we now need to go to the next stage.
What is your stance on the Highthorn opencast development and under what circumstances would you allow the Dewley Hill mine to go ahead?
JM: We need to reduce our reliance on coal, but let’s not forget that coal mining as an industry has provided a lot of jobs in the North East. On those two specific applications, I would need to see an overwhelming economic case for surface mining, the strongest possible environmental protections in place and a restoration plan in place. I couldn’t support those two applications, but I have no control over that, that’s a matter for the planning authorities.
CH: I think we should be over extraction. I’m not sure on the specifics of this case, but it seems like there are many more jobs in a green industrial revolution than there are in mining.
JA: I’m against mining. I’m not absolutely clear as yet what specific powers I would have as mayor to stop that, but I would do my damnedest. It’s an easier question to answer now than it would have been even five years ago. Five years ago, it was still quite difficult to see how the economics would work in a rapid transition to renewables. The economics has changed amazingly fast. Solar has got so much cheaper, with a little bit of caution, I think there is scope for more onshore wind and certainly plenty of offshore wind and there are other possibilities.
JD: Right at the start of the internal Labour selection, I published on my website that I was opposed to opencast mining at Druridge Bay. I have actually put in a planning objection as a Newcastle city councillor to the one at Dewley Hill with great detail about the damage that would cause. I don’t think it’s enough to claim you’re in favour of environmentalism, you’re running for mayor and you haven’t bothered to find out the facts.
How would you ensure bus and train services are reliable and set up to meet the real needs of the public and communities?
CH: On rural buses, I think there’s technology we can use to make it on demand. I am sure there are ways of organising people to have much more efficient capacity on the buses. I’m sure it’s the same for people from Berwick on the run down to the hospital in Cramlington. It would be nice to think that we could reallocate our resources with technology that many, many people have on their smartphones, to Airbnb how small buses get around the place.
JA: One of the big challenges for the mayor is how to balance this huge rural hinterland with the urbanised south-east corner. We do need dial-a-ride services, we need car clubs, but if we can get the right rural office and workspace near rural housing and put in the right digital IT then people don’t need to travel as much. We need a long-term vision about what rural sustainability looks like and how transport fits into that picture.
JD: Joint ticketing – the only barriers to this are commercial, the technology exists. Where we have had joint ticketing systems, they work and where they have been introduced, you typically get a 40 per cent increase in public transport use. That in turn makes public transport more financially viable. What you can also do is gain bus franchising powers, like other metro mayors. That requires the Government to devolve them and the route to that is getting the four authorities south of the Tyne who are part of the Joint Transport Committee to agree that they want them too and I’ve already had discussions with them on this and they’re very keen.
JM: I want to prioritise the East Coast Mainline and that brings benefits to more local, rural stations that access the East Coast Mainline, so I want to prioritise long-overdue investment over anything that’s being proposed for HS2/HS3. I want to make all our town centres more accessible, not less, so again that means getting the game-changing investment in public transport. We are going to be better able to get that out of government if the mayor is leading a collaborative effort across the North of Tyne to take that case to them.
What can you do as mayor to promote sustainable tourism?
JD: A lot of it is about making sure we have a better train service. We also need to be thinking about the definition of tourism. One of the things that I will be doing is about food miles. A lot of local caterers make effort to get their food locally, but it’s hard because they have to do a lot of research and don’t always have the time if they are running a small business, so what we can do is provide that information, to have a central portal.
JM: I think we need a much clearer international brand for the North of Tyne. In terms of sustainability, I think there’s work to be done with Sustrans so that when visitors come over, they’ve got access to their bicycles and they can go and enjoy a safe cycle experience. We’ve got some of the most beautiful coastline and some of the most spectacular natural landscapes so we need to make these areas more accessible to our visitors.
CH: My granny was brought up in Beadnell and we have a long history of being there and it has completely changed from when I was a kid. The challenge is how you get those jobs to be sustainable, how Berwick can have a longer season and how you can be more unified as a community. It’s got to be sensitive and there are places where the season peaks but there aren’t affordable homes, but with the powers of the mayor, it’s possible to pinpoint some of the grants you can give for housing.
JA: If we are talking about tourism, we’re talking about not simply having more and more planes and we have to be quite frank about that. Another thing is I’ve noticed what has happened to towns and villages that have bypasses. Nobody wants to have heavy traffic coming through the middle, but if you simply put a bypass there, what happens is there’s no footfall in the town or village, so you have to take quite an integrated approach. If you just said tourists are a nuisance then the whole local economy could die. It has to be on a case-by-case basis.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service