North East mayor: Leaders promise change on 'momentous day' as Kim McGuinness takes office

First NEMCA meeting at Durham County Hall
First NEMCA meeting at Durham County Hall -Credit:Newcastle Chronicle

Political leaders hailed a “momentous" day for the North East and promised to deliver change for the people of the region as Kim McGuinness took office as mayor.

Tuesday marked a significant moment in the region’s political history, as the freshly-elected Ms McGuinness began her new job and chaired the first meeting of a reformed North East Combined Authority (NECA). The Labour mayor promised communities across Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and Durham “more of a say over their own future”, under a devolution deal bringing new decision-making powers and funding to local leaders.

Speaking at the inaugural meeting of the new NECA cabinet in Durham, Ms McGuinness called it a “marker in the sand” and “day one in us taking more power from London and bringing it to our region”. Earlier in the day, the former Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner announced that she had started her term as mayor by instructing officials to begin the process of taking public control over the region’s bus network, one of the key powers that the new mayor holds.

As council leaders and deputies from across the region came together for Tuesday afternoon’s County Hall meeting, they pledged to work across party lines to make good on the promise of the much-heralded, multi-billion pound devolution deal.

This is the first time that a mayor has been elected to cover the whole of a vast area encompassing Northumberland, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, Gateshead and Durham. Previous proposals for a devolution deal for the North East dramatically fell apart in 2016 and led the three councils north of the Tyne to break away, but the seven authorities have now been reunited.

Ms McGuinness, who defeated independent challenger Jamie Driscoll to become mayor, added: “It has been a long campaign… but as far as I am concerned the campaign is over and now this is an exercise in real, proper, cross-party working for the benefit of the 2.1 million people that live right across our region. It is an exercise in making sure that this thing spans and has an impact in the villages and towns, in the coast, city, and countryside that make up this brilliant place.”

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Kemp called it a “hugely exciting day”, while Durham’s Amanda Hopgood said it was “momentous”. Gateshead Council’s Martin Gannon admitted that his authority had “threatened to walk away” from the devolution deal “on a number of occasions” before final agreement was struck and called for more powers to be handed over.

North East mayor Kim McGuinness chairing her first cabinet meeting at Durham County Hall
North East mayor Kim McGuinness chairing her first cabinet meeting at Durham County Hall -Credit:Newcastle Chronicle

He said: “We want more power and we want more money. Collectively, working together, we can run this region far better than the Government can.”

More than £6bn worth of Government investment has already been confirmed through the 30-year devolution deal, including more than £2bn to put into improving the region’s transport infrastructure, while the combined authority also holds powers over areas such as housing and establishing mayoral development corporations.

Dame Norma Redfearn, the elected mayor of North Tyneside, is the only leader still in post from an original group of seven who began negotiations over a devolution deal more than 10 years ago. Praising councils for “putting politics to one side” to get the deal done at last, she added: “We have had all the fine words. We have had lots of reports. But let's get on and deliver because that is what the people need to feel and to see.”

Richard Wearmouth, the deputy leader of Tory-run Northumberland County Council, said: “There is lots more that we can be doing together and we look forward to building that case around taking more power from Westminster, proving what we already know in this room – that we can work very effectively across councils, across parties to drive forward the very best for our region.”

The inaugural NECA meeting saw Ms McGuinness’ £92,000-a-year salary formally agreed, after what Dame Norma called an “extremely thorough” process to determine the new figurehead’s pay packet.

The new mayor was also handed a 735-signature petition from members of the Workers’ Education Authority (WEA), amid an ongoing row about it being “defunded”. The charity is set to lose a grant it previously received from the now-defunct North of Tyne Combined Authority to provide adult learning courses, which it claims will leave it facing a £1.3 million shortfall and put 72 jobs at risk.

Combined authority bosses have previously insisted that the WEA will be able to bid for funding through a competitive procurement process to deliver adult education and that courses will still be available, though grant funding will instead be targeted towards local colleges. But, calling on the new mayor to reinstate the WEA’s grant, its director of education for employability Chris Morgan said: “We’ve entered the procurement provision in good faith but, even if we are successful, we will only be able to deliver a small proportion of our current work. NECA’s procurement process for community learning is heavily skewed towards job outcomes and not the vital mental and wellbeing outcomes it has previously delivered.”

Learner Joe Knowles, from Seaham, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “This organisation has been going since 1903 and we want to keep it going because it is important to the community. We are not going to tolerate it going to the wall.”