North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, is perhaps typical of our political age. In a world where the surprise candidate is becoming far less of a surprise, he is the relative newcomer who beat Newcastle City Council leader and local government veteran Nick Forbes to be selected as the Labour candidate for the combined authority.
Mayor Driscoll was, until May, a backbench city councillor at Newcastle. With a background as an activist, he says he is ‘seen as someone from the left of the Labour Party’ but in person he comes across as far more pragmatic than dogmatic.
He even admits he would be far more vocal about the state of national politics if he was still a backbencher, but is aware his new post requires a more subtle and collaborative approach.
The big challenge for the Mayor and his team so far has been to get the combined authority up and running, and to get the right staff in place. As a former engineer and software developer, he highlights that the combined authority has already started to deliver on STEM programmes and he wants to focus on getting people back into work.
The combined authority has had the adult education budget devolved and he is keen to praise his team for achieving that so quickly, but – unusually for the combined authorities – he doesn’t hold the cards for transport in the area.
The North of the Tyne devolution deal is focused on three key sectors. The first is data and digital. Mayor Driscoll says: ‘Newcastle and North Tyneside already has some of the best digital infrastructure in the country. It goes over the North Sea to Denmark and back into our patch.’
It may not be something most of the rest of the country realises, but its connectivity has made it the second biggest digital economy in the country after London.
The second is ageing and health sciences, but it is talking about the third key sector – energy and climate change – where the Mayor becomes far more animated. On day one after his election, he declared a climate change emergency for the combined authority.
‘When we talk about the inconvenience of the climate change protesters, that is nothing compared to what is going to happen,’ he warns.
All his policies are peppered with an environmental angle – from modern methods of housing that need to be energy efficient to transport policies giving people access to jobs without the need for a car.
‘We are working with the UN to get a new and accredited climate change teacher in every school in the North of Tyne area. We will be the first region in the world to do that,’ he says.
When it comes to Brexit, he says 60% of the area’s exports go to Europe: ‘I’ve yet to hear someone make the case for how you can get a deal that is better for exporting to the EU than the deal we have already got, so resilience has got to be top of our economic agenda.’
Boosting the inward investment is important, but he is also keen to direct as much of his spending power locally as he can, embedding social value as he goes. Not because of ‘regional protectionism’ but to boost local opportunities.
And he suggests devolution is the antidote to Brexit.
For most people, he suggests it was not an objection to the European Commission that caused Brexit, but the remoteness of democracy.
‘The more we get serious devolution and the ability to connect things together locally, the more people will realise that that’s the way it’s got to go. It delivers not only savings, but it gets people engaged. I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to democracy.’
‘When people have the feeling things are being done to them, and at a time of biting austerity, catastrophic climate change…people are looking for someone to fix it. We need to make sure people are part of that solution and not seen as being excluded from the decision making. You can’t do that on a national basis. On a local basis, you can.’
In his dealings with the Northern Powerhouse minister, he says they have ‘agreed to put the party rosettes to one side’ as they are both keen to make devolution work.
‘I’d like to think Mr Johnson, as a former mayor, would be very strong on this agenda,’ he adds.
There is more devolution he would like. More powers over the local transport system, more over education, skills and the apprenticeship levy, more on investment, more freedom over borrowing.
‘What I want to achieve is for some serious benefits of devolution to be understood by everybody here. So they can see that, yes, the fact we have our decision making here, we can see that is working,’ Mayor Driscoll says. ‘I want people to really believe they have taken back control, that they have done it through devolution for the English regions.’