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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

North East mayor: Voters face defining choice for region’s future on historic election

This week is a defining moment for the future of the North East.

On Thursday, voters across Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and Durham go to the polls to elect the first ever North East mayor.

And the winner will have more power and responsibility to shape our region’s future than any local leader before them.

They will be tasked with bringing vast upgrades to the North East’s transport network and with driving forward ambitions to combat climate change.

With delivering thousands of new jobs, tackling a housing crisis, and addressing surging levels of child poverty.

And, of course, making sure that the much-heralded benefits of a devolution deal already worth more than £6 billion are felt in every corner of the region – from Jesmond to Jarrow, Hendon to Haltwhistle, Berwick to Barnard Castle.

The choice that the people of the North East make this week will have enormous implications and mark the culmination of a complex and fraught political journey lasting more than a decade, as councils on either side of the Tyne finally reunite after a bitter breakup following the eleventh-hour collapse of a previous deal in 2016.

The six names in the frame for the big job are Labour’s Kim McGuinness, her bitter rival and independent challenger Jamie Driscoll, Tory Guy Renner-Thompson, the Green Party’s Andrew Gray, Liberal Democrat Aidan King, and Reform UK candidate Paul Donaghy.

There are also local council elections taking place in Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Sunderland, as well as for police and crime commissioners (PCCs) for the region’s forces.

Ms McGuinness, currently the Northumbria PCC, is the bookies’ odds-on favourite in the mayoral race – no great surprise, in an area traditionally dominated by Labour and at a time when the party is well ahead in the national polls.

But Mr Driscoll has confidently predicted that he can cause a big upset and exact an embarrassing defeat on his former party, after a major drama last year that saw the sitting North of Tyne mayor barred from going up against Ms McGuinness in Labour’s selection contest and ultimately quit the party.

While the mayoral campaign has largely been a cordial affair, without quite the same level of vitriol seen on the Tees Valley, the simmering tension between the two leading candidates has boiled over occasionally and seen both attack the other’s record in office.

Mr Driscoll’s campaign has been well-funded thanks to a big online donations drive and he believes he can emulate the likes of Ken Livingstone, who successfully ran for London mayor as an independent, but a victory for him – or, indeed, any of the other hopefuls – would be a shock nonetheless.

There have long been critics in the North East who have questioned the need for a mayor, including some among the council leaders who have eventually driven this deal to fruition.

And a recent poll showed that public knowledge of the role is lower than in many other areas of England, with just 28% of people said to be aware of an election that will reshape the region’s political landscape.

It will be the job of the new mayor to hit the ground running, prove the sceptics wrong, and make their presence felt.

Already there have been signs of the benefits that the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority could bring, not least the funding agreed to help build the massive Crown Works film studios in Sunderland.

Expect a raft of announcements to follow in the coming weeks and months— on projects like safeguarding the future of the Shields Ferry and, depending on who wins, moves to take control of the region’s bus network out of the hands of private companies.

This role has been touted as an opportunity for the North East to have a stronger voice on the national and international stage, for the region to take control of its own destiny and step out of the shadows of Manchester and the like.

Come Friday afternoon when the election result is declared in Sunderland, we will know whose job it is to make good on those promises.

This week has been a very long time coming — and the North East expects.

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