‘I won’t be forgetting the north of the region’ – that’s the commitment of the new North of Tyne Mayor to the people of Northumberland.
And a map on his wall showing the county’s diverse geography should act as a constant reminder during Jamie Driscoll’s five-year term of office.
The Labour candidate, who took up his post yesterday (Tuesday, May 7) after his success in the polls last week, explained that the key was how to ‘translate the common needs that everybody has’.
Speaking earlier today (Wednesday, May 8), he said: “I won’t be forgetting the north of the region. In fact, there’s a massive map on the wall of my office which shows quite starkly how diverse Northumberland is geographically.
“There are severe pockets of rural deprivation. Even people who are getting by and have good jobs, the lack of provision of services close to where people are does affect things, such as environmental pressure.
“We want to minimise people having to drive all the way from one end of the county to the other to get access to healthcare for example.”
Much has been made of the fact that Mr Driscoll is very much of the Momentum-backed, Corbynite left of the Labour Party and during his victory speech at the election count on Friday, he declared that socialist was a ‘label he was proud to wear’.
However, he insists this does not mean that he cannot work effectively with Northumberland County Council’s Conservative administration and deliver for all of the residents of the North of Tyne area.
“I just had a meeting with Peter Jackson and Wayne Daley (leader and deputy leader of Northumberland County Council) where we’ve been talking about the educational challenge, the challenges that rural communities face. They were flicking through my manifesto and said, all of this looks good.
“The press like a bit of conflict and obviously there are differences between the parties, but when it comes to implementing things, if you have people with a good social conscience, they will frequently realise that what needs to be done is just getting on with the job.
“There are effectively seven of us on the cabinet, me as mayor and two each from the local authorities, and it’s about realising that we’ve all got a responsibility for delivering this, there is a democratic mandate for the policies.
“But actually everybody wants people in better housing, everybody wants people out of poverty and it’s just a question of focusing on those priorities and making them happen with, to be fair, a fraction of the amount of money we would all like to do it with.
“All local authorities are feeling the squeeze in terms of government funding and perhaps Conservative local authorities will be a lot more aligned with this than central government.”
Mr Driscoll said he will use his position ‘to be honest’ in terms of his relationship with the Government.
“Where there are central government policies which are not adequate for serving the people of our region then part of my role will be to say, you have to change the way you’re doing things.
“For example, when it comes to public transport, we do face severe underinvestment. We get £855 per head, whereas in London, they get £4,155 per head. That is something I will certainly be saying is inadequate, because it’s my job to deliver for the people of the North East and North of Tyne.”
Crucial to the success of the role is the understanding of the differences and diversity of the combined authority area; not just between the constituent councils – Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle – but within them as well.
Mr Driscoll recognises that the provision of affordable housing – something else he highlighted as a key policy in his manifesto – may look different in rural or coastal Northumberland than it does in the city centre.
He said it’s about getting housing ‘close to where people work and close to where people want to live – frequently people who have grown up in these areas can’t afford to stay there, I’ve heard that so many times’.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see vast estates of hundreds or thousands houses built and it’s about building them sensitively, in clusters so the services match and, at the same time, building them using modern construction techniques that are locking carbon away, that are generating their own electricity with solar panels built in.”
Another of Mr Driscoll’s key manifesto pledges was around adult education and he says that provision needs to be spread around geographically ‘so that the skills that people need are within a reasonable distance of where they live’.
He said he was told many anecdotes on the campaign trail, including from someone from Seahouses, who travels all the way down to Newcastle College in order to study childcare.
“That’s not the way it should be,” he continued. “It’s about making sure the provision is more local, to make sure we have a clear picture of what’s needed in localities so people have the opportunities to learn, not just for better employment, but for cultural enrichment. It’s important that we have not just economic and environmental sustainability, but social sustainability.”
Environmentalism is a key tenet of his agenda and, as promised, Mr Driscoll declared a climate-change emergency on his first day in office.
“The reason for that is it sets down a benchmark so people realise it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s an essential, because that’s going to involve a lot of work from everyone – constituent authorities, the public sector, businesses, civil society.
“Unless we recognise that this has to change, that we have to cut our emissions, then we will be facing more and more extreme weather events, rising sea levels and degradation of farmland.
“That’s something that nobody wants, but unless you get on and do it, it won’t happen. What we will be doing as the North of Tyne authority is convening them and acting as the support structure to get that plan in place.”
Mr Driscoll said that his first day also featured a lot of media commitments as well as the stuff everyone has to do on their first day in a new job.
“What was useful though was sitting down with the staff, looking at the programme and seeing where we can get on and deliver on the manifesto,” he said. “That’s a programme of work that’s going to take the full five years.
“It’s been a long campaign, I’ve been running for this for six months, so I was up to speed with a lot of what needed to be done with the policies, how the combined authority works and it’s now about translating that into actions.
“Not only am I new as the Mayor, the authority is new, we don’t have a lot of the senior staff in place and very few of the less senior staff. There isn’t a big lever in this office I can pull and make things happen.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service