North of Tyne Combined Authority drops 'confusing' PR drive plan after criticism

A marketing campaign to promote the work of a combined authority was called off after it was deemed “quite confusing for the public” ahead of the North East mayoral election.
Greg Stone. Photo: NCJ Media.Greg Stone. Photo: NCJ Media.
Greg Stone. Photo: NCJ Media.

The North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) came in for criticism last October after it emerged that it had hired an outside PR firm in an effort to celebrate its achievements, before it is wound up and the larger North East Mayoral Combined Authority launches in May.

Councillors questioned whether the move, which could have seen videos and podcasts produced, was an appropriate use of public money – particularly with independent NTCA mayor Jamie Driscoll standing as a candidate in the upcoming election.

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While the NTCA’s final report has now been produced, councillors were told on Tuesday that the PR drive around it had been shelved.

The NTCA told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that Cheshire-based Steele PR did write the report summarising the authority’s work over its five years in existence, but that no extra promotional materials were produced.

A spokesperson confirmed that roughly £33,000 was still spent on bringing in the firm.

At a meeting of the NTCA’s overview and scrutiny committee in Morpeth on Tuesday, where the report was presented, Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone said: “I did say when the report came I was fine with the idea of an annual report, and what we have here is quite good. There were some discussions at the previous meeting about a campaign to promote it online – has that been shelved?”

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Coun Stone had previously warned that the report should not be a “glossy encomium on how wonderful the authority has been and how wonderful the mayor has been”.

Chief executive Henry Kippin responded: “In terms of the campaign, there was a discussion at the committee and in cabinet. We talked about a number of options.

“We felt the campaign could be quite confusing for the public in the run up to an election. We took the decision to focus our efforts on what was coming.”

Dame Norma Redfearn, the deputy North of Tyne mayor, said that she would “feel dreadful if this was looked at as propaganda”.

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She added: “A lot of thought went into what was published. We’re not here to tell people how good we are – we’re here to work with them.”

Last October, the NTCA had defended its plans as “good practice in terms of evaluation and learning”, while Mr Driscoll claimed it was a “democratic responsibility to tell people what we are doing”.

The report outlines how investment from the NTCA has helped deliver a pipeline of more than 5,000 projected new jobs across Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland.

The listed achievements also include £10 million having been put in to support the reopening of the Northumberland Line railway, £20 million into offshore renewable energy, and £7.7 million into regenerating high streets.