North East mayor candidates go head-to-head for first time ahead of historic election

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The North East mayoral election campaign kicked into gear on Monday night as the candidates vying for the huge job went head-to-head for the first time.

In the first hustings event held ahead of the historic mayoral election due in May, five contenders for the post debated on stage at Durham University.

Facing questions from an audience at St Chad’s College were Labour’s Kim McGuinness, Conservative Guy Renner-Thompson, independent Jamie Driscoll, the Green Party’s Andrew Gray, and Liberal Democrat Aidan King.

Reform UK candidate Paul Donaghy was unable to attend.

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North East Mayoral hustings event at St. Chad's College in Durham. Photo: NCJ Media.North East Mayoral hustings event at St. Chad's College in Durham. Photo: NCJ Media.
North East Mayoral hustings event at St. Chad's College in Durham. Photo: NCJ Media.

The mayoral hopefuls outlined their visions to deal with the region’s transport problems, rural issues, the climate emergency, and other topics, in what was a well-behaved debate free from any major fireworks – though there were flashes of tension between some of the rival politicians.

Mr Driscoll, who announced last week that he had raised more than £160,000 towards his campaign after quitting the Labour Party last summer to run as an independent, repeatedly talked up his record as the sitting North of Tyne Combined Authority mayor, saying that other candidates offered “warm words” but “you won’t hear from anybody else with a track record as mayor”.

He added that his authority was one of “very few” public organisations to have achieved net zero status, had delivered thousands of jobs, and not raised council tax.

But Ms McGuinness, who has been the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner since 2019, claimed that devolution in the North East “simply hasn’t reached its potential” so far – as she promised to combat the region’s child poverty crisis and make the region the “home of green energy”.

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She promised to “put place before party”, before her independent rival took aim at Labour for dropping its £28 billion green investment pledge and said voters had lost trust in political parties.

The pair, who had been expected to fiercely contest Labour’s nomination before Mr Driscoll was controversially barred from that race last year, also clashed over Mr Driscoll’s proposal for on-demand bus services, which Ms McGuinness claimed would be “far too expensive”.

Dr King, a physician at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, outlined his plans to build the country’s largest onshore wind farm, on rural land across County Durham and Northumberland.

However, he warned the audience of around 100 people that the new mayor would not have control over sufficient funding “capable of changing the situation in the North East”.

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Mr Renner-Thompson pledged to “make the North East the home of the jobs of the future”, promising to drive forward sectors including artificial intelligence, offshore energy, and advanced manufacturing.

The Northumberland councillor said that education was his greatest passion and, in response to a question on how to deal with school capacity and quality issues following the RAAC crisis, said he wanted the mayor to take on the powers of the region’s schools commissioner.

Mr Gray told the audience that he would invest in making communities “more resilient” and launch a major housing retrofit programme to make homes warmer and cheaper to run.

While the Tory candidate had promised not to “penalise the car driving majority”, Mr Gray argued that reducing traffic levels was essential to providing more reliable bus services.

The election is due to be held on May 2.