Here I offer a few reflections about the development of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, and what the Mayor’s role means for our sector.
VONNE have been involved with the discussions on North of Tyne devolution for many months, and we supported the recent VCSE engagement events that were held in North Tyneside, Newcastle and Northumberland. It was great to see such a large turnout of organisations at the three events, but most of those I spoke to afterwards said they were still struggling to visualise what the devolution deal will mean in reality for our sector.
The North of Tyne area isn’t a natural community by any means, and, had the discussions with authorities south of the Tyne gone more positively, we would be looking at a very different size and scale of devolution deal. So when the North of Tyne deal was initially agreed, many in the sector felt disappointment. Despite being centred on the regional capital, the devolution process was not going to be easy given the interdependency of the region’s economy and the fact that major areas of population south of the Tyne and beyond were excluded.
While it does bring a significant investment each year in terms of employment opportunities, skills and economic growth, the deal itself doesn’t include the devolution of any budgets related to health and social care; this is the bit of the Greater Manchester deal that most of us within the sector look at with envy!
There was a lot of confusion about how we could develop better transport systems too - given that Nexus works across Tyne and Wear, and a general feeling that this process was just another layer of bureaucracy rather than a true example of devolved power.
But we are where we are, and looking on the bright side we have the benefit of three strong local infrastructure organisations in the North of Tyne area (Northumberland CVA, North Tyneside VODA and Newcastle CVS), who have been working together for more than a year in terms of the devolution process, meeting with the relevant leads at each local authority, pushing for separate consultation events to mirror what happened for the business community, and meeting with the lead officer in charge of drafting the initial deal.
Because the North of Tyne geography is smaller than VONNE’s and larger than the local infrastructure organisations’ we’ve had to work together to provide a voice for the sector. Between us we met each of the mayoral candidates alongside Tyne and Wear Citizens, and asked them about their views on having a civil society ambassador as part of their cabinet. All of them said yes, and now we look forward to working with Jamie Driscoll to make this happen.
We also want to ensure that a representative from the VCSE sector has a seat on the Inclusive Economy Board. There is no inclusive economy without the involvement of our sector. Our sector is deeply concerned about the impact of climate change and we want to push our new Mayor on his commitments to creating a ‘green industrial revolution’ in his manifesto. We want to see swift work on the creation of new jobs in our region in the green energy sector, and effective working alongside the many excellent environmental organisations in our sector on behaviour change and awareness raising. His manifesto is strong on local communities and in particular the commitment made to running public services from local community facilities appeals – but we want to make sure that where possible this plan supports the many existing community facilities that are either struggling to meet demand or to maintain their facilities – rather than establishing new ones.
In the Tees Valley we’ve worked hard alongside the local infrastructure organisations there to ensure that there is VCSE representation on all of the relevant sub groups of the combined authority – and we want to mirror this process in the North of Tyne area. We are already talking to staff within the combined authority about this, but we know that the Mayor’s support for VCSE involvement at all levels is vital - and we will seek to meet with him and secure that commitment as soon as possible.
The more decisions that are taken locally, the more opportunities there are for our sector to have a voice and influence. This is especially important in today’s world where we hear more and more how little people feel engaged with public life. The election of the first North of Tyne Mayor is a key moment at the very start of a devolution process which we hope will grow in strength over time, both in terms of the number of local authorities involved, and in terms of the powers that have been devolved.