Of all the cities I have visited so far, Newcastle is the least enthusiastic about reforming its system of government. Labour and the Lib Dems dominate the city council and I could not identify a single councillor or MP from either party in favour of the mayoral proposition.
Newcastle has form on the subject of city bosses. People still talk about T Dan Smith, the dictatorial Labour leader of the city in the 1960s, who had grand visions of Newcastle as the "Brasilia of the North" and "the outstanding provincial city in the country" but ended up in jail for conspiracy and corruption.
T Dan Smith’s ghost stalks the city’s breathtaking Scandinavian-style civic centre, a monument to his vision but equally a reminder that power can corrupt very badly indeed.
Recent experience of elected mayors elsewhere in the north-east has also put local politicians off the idea. Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and neighbouring North Tyneside all have mayors. Their record is fairly positive, but two of the three won as anti-party candidates (ex-police chief Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough and Stuart 'the monkey' Drummond, ex mascot of Hartlepool FC), while in North Tyneside there is Tory Mayor confronting a Labour council. None of which is endearing to Newcastle’s Labour and Lib Dem leaders.
In the last twenty years Newcastle city centre – and neighbouring Gateshead, whose Sage music centre dominates the view across the Tyne – has undergone a cultural renaissance. Yet the city and the region face immense economic and employment challenges. Andy Sugden, policy director at the North East Chamber of Commerce, points out that there is only one FTSE company – also called Sage – headquartered within 100 miles of Newcastle, and Sage’s new chief executive has chosen to locate himself in Paris.
Effective regional leadership
While an elected Mayor of Newcastle has few supporters, everyone stresses the need for stronger regional strategic leadership, to plan infrastructure and transport and boost regeneration. A new “city region” elected authority might provide for this, as in London, if it covered the travel-to-work area and avoided the charges of red tape and waste which bedevilled the failed campaign for a north-east regional assembly a decade ago.
However, even agreeing new arrangements to replace One North East, the regional development agency abolished by the coalition last year, has proved a nightmare. No consensus could be found for maintaining a single Local Economic Partnership (LEP) for the region. After months of haggling, Newcastle became part of a LEP embracing the five urban councils of Tyne and Wear, plus Northumberland and Durham.
But the main topic of conversation in my discussions with political and business leaders was the inability even to agree an interim chair of the LEP. Paul Walker, the former chief executive of Sage, was proposed to become the chair, but his appointment is being blocked by two of the constituent councils and the LEP remains rudderless and leaderless.
With Newcastle accounting for only a fifth of the population even within Tyne and Wear, the city has proved unable to project effective regional leadership, and it is hard to see how an elected “city region” could develop, however imperative the need for one.
The situation is neatly symbolised by the opening of the second Tyne road tunnel, which takes place today. The tunnel itself is the fruit of a long campaign to overcome a critical transport and communications bottleneck.
But the A19, from the mouth of the new tunnel, has not been upgraded, because regional agreement could not be reached on the project costs. So congestion is likely to remain debilitating, and no-one has a plan to overcome it any time soon. Unless Alan Shearer takes up the cause.