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Sunday, April 14, 2024

First mayoral hustings for the North East

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

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 forced to miss the event after reportedly suffering car trouble.

Jamie Driscoll
Image: Department of Transportation and Tyne and Wear combined authority

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.

Kim McGuinness Image: kimmcguinness.org

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”.

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.

Dr Aidan King Image: Newcastle upon Tyne Lib Dems

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, and drew the biggest laugh of the night with the rather unconventional slogan “I’ve got wind”.

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

Cllr Guy Renner-Thompson. Image: Northumberland County Council

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 that has engulfed pupils at St Leonards in Durham, 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.

Andrew Gray Image: North East Green Party

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 new mayor will serve a population of around two million people across Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and Durham.

It comes after the seven areas came together to strike a multi-billion pound devolution deal with the Government, which will see the region handed new funding and decision-making powers over key areas like transport and housing.

The devolution deal is due to be formally ratified in Parliament this month, allowing an election to be held on 2 May .

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