The country may be about to head to the polls on Europe, but at least one man has his eyes firmly on the vote in May 2017 when the North East elects its first mayor.
The North East has signed its devolution deal – although Gateshead is not joining Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle, South Tyneside, Sunderland and Durham at this stage – and so far one person has thrown their hat in the ring in a bid to be elected as the region’s top dog in this brave new world.
Businessman Jeremy Middleton, who stood for the Conservatives in the 1997 General Election as well as the 2004 European Parliament election, has been partly inspired by his current company which invests in businesses and his work with the Local Enterprise Partnership, and wants to ensure that economic development is at the centre of what happens across the area.
Indeed, he sees the role of directly-elected mayor as so important and the potential for the region so great that he recently resigned from the Conservative Party in order to stand as an independent candidate next year.
He suggests that this will offer a stark choice for voters; do they want to stick to the status quo with the way the North East has been treated by governments of both stripes for years and the traditional politicians trying to hold onto their power or do they want change?
And with his campaign already in full flow, as he attempts to steals a march on his yet-to-be-announced rivals, Mr Middleton spoke to us about his vision for the North East if he became mayor.
“I just believe we can do things so much better, I think the North East has had a raw deal in many ways and I think we need to be demanding more and raising our expectations and aspirations,” he said.
Referring to the way that Scotland receives more public money which it has used to do things such as subsidise free prescriptions and spend far more on economic development, he added: “Governments have let that happen, but our local political leadership has failed because we have that raw deal.
“A fairer deal for the North East has to be at the top of the agenda for anyone who is seeking to represent the people of the North East, that seems a fairly basic proposition, but I start from the basis that both political parties have failed.”
And Mr Middleton believes that party politics had been a particular hindrance in the North East, not least in the way that the region has had to be ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ into doing a deal with the Government on devolution. Manchester embraced it and already has devolved powers on other aspects, like the NHS.
“The North East needs a mayor who’s exclusively focused on the needs of the North East, not looking at their next political career move,” he said. “That’s the reason I’m standing as an independent because I want to challenge both government and our local leadership.”
However, he does concede that this has its disadvantages: “I start with no votes, no machine, no resources, nothing, so there is no floor to how few votes I can get, but there is also no ceiling to how many votes I can get and in the North East there is a history of people being willing to challenge the status quo when it comes to mayoral elections.”
But to win votes, the people of the North East need to like what Mr Middleton wants to do and his vision for the North East and at this stage, he is focusing on two main challenges – schools and skills, and jobs and growth.
“We have unacceptably large numbers of people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs), we have far more than anywhere else in the country and we have more than we should have by any demographic.
“The need to do something about this has been identified time after time. There’s so much producer interest that has stopped what needs to be done being done.
“It needs vastly more priority because the solutions lie within our hands, are known and can be implemented, but we lack the leadership to make it happen.”
In terms of job creation and helping businesses grow, he said: “We should be putting the resources we have into jobs, not buildings. The public assumption is ‘let’s build another incubator unit’, which makes a nice ribbon for a politician to cut, but all you’ve got is a building at the end of it.
“Actually, we don’t need more buildings, we need more businesses. If we put the same money into loans to businesses and equity into businesses, that will turn into jobs and when that turns to jobs, the private sector will build the buildings.”
His pledge is to create a £1billion jobs and investment fund to put public money into loans and equities ‘to drive our business and then get the money back and spend it again’.
Regardless of whether you like what a candidate is saying, many in the North East may be dubious about how the elected mayor will work; it was only 12 years ago that the region soundly rejected a regional assembly. However, this time it’s different, according to Mr Middleton.
“I think it’s very different, that was a vote to set up an assembly; a lot of politicians, a lot of jobs for the boys with no powers and benefits for the people and people said ‘it’s a big white elephant’.
“In this case, large sums of money are being transferred from London to the North East and the people are being given a choice, to elect one person to lead the North East. You’ve got real power and only one politician, or only one leader anyway.”
Another concerns will be that, instead of bringing powers to the people, it will be taking them away. For example, a common complaint in the rural areas of Northumberland is that the unitary authority’s attention – and money – is focused on the urban south-east. Will the same not happen with a focus on Newcastle and Sunderland?
“At the moment, that’s precisely what happens because the rural areas can be outvoted. At least a mayor will have to be voted for by people here and will be obliged to represent everyone, including the rural interest.
“Secondly, there are no powers or money being transferred from local authorities or any other levels upwards to the mayor. There’s no suggestion of that, this is for powers that come from London to the North East.”
But all in all, while Mr Middleton is focused on particular challenges in the North East, he also thinks it can be a simpler choice: “Do we want to be a player or do we want to continue to be conned by our political leadership?”