“The work is not best done by us sitting in Westminster”

November 26, 2023

“We wanted to make a statement. And we did.”

Impressive if you’ve just beaten a rival football club. Less impressive if you’re the Chancellor and that’s a literal description of what you’ve just done.

Anyone expecting fireworks from the Autumn Statement hasn’t been paying attention to Mr Sunak’s Government over the past year. Since taking the highest political office in the land, the current Prime Minister has not prioritised the cost-of-living crisis or tackling the climate emergency. In fact, quite the opposite.

The North East didn’t get a mention in the Chancellor’s speech. But it did feature twice in the 120-page document that accompanied it – the North East Investment Zones, and the North East Trailblazer.

It’s standard but tedious form in the Westminster pantomime for Ministers and Shadows to crowbar in praise for party allies. Some might day it’s an undemocratic use of office. But what really matters is the policy decisions.

Our Investment Zone is now officially confirmed. We’ve been working on it since the Truss Government first floated the idea of race-to-the-bottom tax-cutting, deregulated free-for-all zones. To be fair, as soon as I pushed back, they did listen. We’re getting an extra £160 million over ten years to boost local skills and infrastructure in Blyth, along the Tyne, at IAMP in Washington, and NETPark in Sedgefield. That translates into more well-paid jobs.

I’m a firm believer that if everyone has a secure, well-paid job, half our other social problems will disappear, reducing pressure on health, social services, benefits and criminal justice.

That businesses need long-term stability is a truism. So do charities, community organisations, and the public sector. Stop-start funding invites rushed plans and unstable delivery. Across the country 43% of last year’s Shared Prosperity Fund money was not spent. The main reason was that councils were given as little as two months to spend it.

When we’re given a long-term settlement we spend it wisely. The Adult Skills Budget was devolved to the North of Tyne in 2020. Training chefs, welders, fork-lift drivers – the actual people who are our wealth creators. Since taking control from Whitehall, we’ve increased enrolments from 21,885 a year to 32,769 – for the same budget. We achieved this 50% increase in value for money by working with employers, training providers, and crucially, the learners.

Our track record is one reason we’ve landed the best-funded devolution deal in the country. From May we’ll get more money in our annual investment fund than Greater Manchester, the West Midlands or anywhere else in England, despite their greater populations.

Devolution means more flexibility, and better results. Tying us up with inflexible red tape doesn’t. This is where a Trailblazer comes in. It means we can set more of the rules about how we spend the money. Projects we fund, from training providers to community groups get long-term, stable funding agreements without stop-start cash flow or incessant bid writing.

I first spoke to Government about it in January 2022, before they’d even published the idea as policy. They agreed in principle last Autumn. I fought to stop it getting kicked into the long grass. But shy bairns get nowt, and the published Autumn Statement confirms that we’ll get our bespoke North East Trailblazer from spring next year, ahead of other areas.

So lobbying, haggling and building on a solid track record has landed us something significant. Just as well, because there’s little else to help the 7.7 million people waiting for NHS treatment. Or the 1 million children living in destitution. You can’t build a strong economy for the future when children are going hungry or trying to do homework without Wi-Fi. You can’t build a strong economy today when millions are off work sick.

Type in “chancellors.autumn.statement” on the global mapping website ‘What3Words’ and you’re sent to a 3 by 3 metre square in the middle of the Kenyan desert. 4,000 miles away from the North East seems an appropriate metaphor for how well Westminster understands us.

When the Chancellor said, “the work is not done,” he was right. It would be more accurate to say “the work is not best done by us sitting in Westminster”. Now that really would be an honest statement.