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30 years of Enterprising Newcastle

April 10, 2014

I started working in the council’s Economic Development Team in 1984, supporting new businesses start in the east of the city. As they have done, for the last 30 years, the council continues to see supporting business start-up and growth as a priority and it is, currently, an integral part of our ‘Working City’ agenda. Whilst the council is less involved in the direct delivery of business support services it still plays a key role, providing information and helping to coordinate support across the city.

The council also has a lead role, helping design the business support that will be available in Newcastle in the years to come, taking a strategic lead and helping to secure funding for the city. I still work with businesses and enjoy the day to day contact I have with new and more established businesses. It is only by talking to businesses that we can make any informed decisions on how business support should be delivered. There is always room for improvements and we need businesses to tell us what they think.

Back in 1984, unemployment rates were high in the city and many unemployed residents were considering self-employment as an option to employment and training. We have a similar state of affairs today with high levels of start-up enquiries but what has changed is the type of businesses that people are now looking to start up. There has also been a huge growth in personal services. Hairdressing has always been popular but there is now a range of beauty-related services for men and women that we’d never have imagined 30 years ago.

The growth of the internet, in particular, has opened up new doors for businesses and provided global market opportunities. In turn, this has also led to a massive growth in home-based business. Social media has given us all another way of communicating and making contact with our customers, but we need to use this effectively and to appreciate that we still need face to face ‘people skills’- social media is just another tool available to us. My key message to all businesses would be to network more – online and face to face. Learn to do it properly and you will meet other businesses, gain new skills and learn from their experiences. You’ll also pick up new ideas, maybe new partners and, certainly, new customers.

Digital Success and Inter-generational Buzz

April 4, 2014

It’s great when local excellence and innovation is acknowledged. That’s why I was really pleased to be at yesterday’s ‘I made a difference’ awards and see Northumbria University Student Union volunteers scoop top prize in the Innovative Partnership category. The awards – this year judged by an inspirational panel of Martha Lane Fox, Lauren Laverne, Chi Onwurah MP and Steph McGovern – are the region’s principal way of recognising those who have gone that extra mile to get the North East digitally connected – enjoying opportunities for digital pleasure and inclusion. Student volunteers perfectly compliment the council’s own Go Digital initiative.

As the Council’s Digital Champion and Portfolio Holder for Age-Friendly City I was particularly pleased to see recognition of the inter-generation buzz at these classes. It’s so easy to think that just providing ‘kit and wires’ is the answer to getting us all online, but student volunteers provide a model for us all of powerful community action. Yes, they’re about people learning and keeping up to speed with technology, but they’re also a real opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to share a laugh and learn from each other’s life experiences. The city is richer for that.

Northumbria Students ‘The IT Classes’ help older people who may not feel comfortable online or buying a computer to gain confidence and improve their skills. Classes are run every week during term-time and rely on a team of dedicated student volunteers to develop a one-to-one and bespoke service that people can drop in and out of that suits their need. Classes have been running for two academic years now and class members have steadily risen to 28 people – the oldest a man in his late 80s. Different people attend each week as word gets passed on and people have had their questions answered, moving on as and when they feel happy.

The partnership between students in Newcastle and the Elders’ Council has been amazing. From the inception of the project, the Elders’ Council has seen its potential and encouraged members to attend. The initiative is on a roll and I would hope other communities and groups are also encouraged to come together to provide that practical network of support that will help the city reach its strategic ambition of being one of the most IT connected in the UK.

The project has helped many people with basic IT skills, helping them get online, setting up e:mail, getting to grips with social media and keeping in touch with friends and family across the world to improve computer literate skills.

I add my congratulations to the student volunteers and to all those involved at Newcastle Elders’ Council and thank too all others in the city, including those involved in Go Digital for all they are doing.

Signs of recovery in our economy

March 19, 2014

Spring is in the air, and that certainly is the case for business in our region. As we’re seeing signs of Spring all around us, we are certainly seeing signs of recovery in our economy. Businesses are reporting higher confidence levels and stronger sales – the best since 2003. More new homes are being built and the housing market is picking up. There is building work taking place across the city as more private investors see the opportunities in our city – with office blocks, retail spaces, hotels and quality homes.

This is good news – but we’ve got bigger and more ambitious plans for our city. We’re committed to making Newcastle the best place to live and do business. To do this, we’re focussed on creating the right conditions for growth, investment and jobs. Our infrastructure is key to this which is why we’re investing over £450 million – ensuring better roads and better connectivity to the rest of the country. We’re also investing £4.5 million to get our young people into work and improve their skills to increase their employability.

Our city is also set to become one of the first super-connected cities in the UK through our Go Digital Scheme. The opportunities that superfast broadband creates for businesses is vast – opening up global markets, increasing our competitiveness and increases the attractiveness of our city for businesses to locate and do business with. This alone could boost our economy by £150 million. We also have a thriving digital sector in our region, with a world-wide reputation for excellence and superfast broadband will certainly cement our reputation further.

Newcastle’s Fairtrade City Renewal

February 10, 2014

In an economy driven by growth and greed where some organisations seem to be obsessed with squeezing as much profit for as little compensation as possible, it is refreshing to find people who believe in a different way of doing things.

People like John Marshall, former Lord Mayor of Newcastle and his wife Margaret who in 2003 brought about Newcastle’s Fairtrade City status through passionate commitment to a fair deal for people in the developing world. Over a decade later, the Fairtrade Partnership is still working hard to keep Fairtrade principles going strong in the city. Even young people are getting involved, as Sacred Heart Primary School’s Work of Hearts Fairtrade Club showed when they came to the City Council to tell us all about the work they’ve been doing to support education in India and Fairtrade industry in Mexico.

The City Council remain the Flagship employer and we have made a commitment to use our buying power as a large organisation to support Fairtrade. We are supported in Fairtrade work by Newcastle University whose Director of Hospitality and Catering, Margaret Hunter, chairs the Partnership. Everyone can do their bit to help the developing world, though. Why not replace your tea or sugar with Fairtrade products? Or why not Stick with Foncho to support struggling banana farmers?

To learn more about how to get involved, head over to

Libraries one year on

February 4, 2014

Thanks to you for helping to maintain our library network

Sometimes desperate times call for new approaches. Cuts to our revenue budget from Government meant we were faced with some terrible choices last year, among the worst was our proposal to close libraries across the city.

Quite rightly, people were angry, furious that services they cherished were now under threat thanks to Government funding cuts.

I was angry as well. As I said at the time, I did not enter politics to cut libraries, which are a source of inspiration and learning to local communities.

The cuts came from Westminster, but people took a lot of their anger out on the council. Some even argued that we should break the law and set an illegal budget so we could save libraries and other services that were now at risk.

A packed meeting at Newcastle’s Assembly Rooms one year ago saw a procession of speakers decry the council for what they described as ‘cultural vandalism’.

But a year on, what actually happened? What does our library network look like now?

I’d argue that, thanks to communities and partners across our city, it has survived and is showing signs of growth.

I’m proud we took the radical step of having an open and honest conversation with people through our Let’s Talk budget consultation.

We told people that we needed their help to maintain a decent service.

And in turn local people and organisations showed they had the appetite to run these services and helped us redefine a positive library network fit for the 21st century.

Only one library, Moorside, actually closed. Although this was a massive loss to the local community – it is remarkable that we managed to make the savings we needed to without closing more.

We now have a core of eight city council run libraries with our modern, award-winning City Library at its heart.

On top of that there are two libraries run by the community in Jesmond and Dinnington and we have four partnership funded libraries which we run in conjunction with other organisations.

The future of Fawdon and Newbiggin Hall libraries is still uncertain, although discussions are taking place with a number of interested parties.

Discussions around Blakelaw Library are more advanced and we are hopeful this will be our next partnership funded library.

And despite a year of stress and uncertainty, our team of dedicated staff has continued to do ground-breaking work that is gaining national recognition, working closely with the communities and organisations that are taking on some of our libraries.

We have been recognised by a national pilot for e-books, we still attract award-winning authors for talks and workshops, we had a very successful Summer Reading Challenge for children and young people, our work clubs are fully subscribed, and our City Library is home to all sorts of events including comic festivals, the new Business and Intellectual Property Centre and the recent Books on Tyne festival.

It wasn’t always easy, but one year on, I think Newcastle still has a library service to be proud of.

View the map of our library network.

Let’s keep the East Coast on track

January 28, 2014

Newcastle was proud to host a high level debate around the future of the East Coast Main Line last week.

Local authorities from London to the Scottish highlands sent delegates to the civic centre, for the latest in a series of discussions about the future of this vital network and to improve our understanding of its economic impact.

The North East is the cradle of the world’s railways – we all know about Stephenson and The Rocket – and railways are part of our DNA. For more than 150 years, the East Coast Main Line has connected us to the rest of the country and shaped the economy of our region.

It carries 155 trains a day, over 18 million passenger journeys a year, and 30 percent of all rail freight for at least part of the journey. It provides 3,000 direct jobs for staff between Inverness and London, not to mention more than 700 jobs being created at Newton Aycliffe, assembling Hitachi’s new electric trains to run on the line. It contributes £640m to public funds – significantly more than privately run lines – and its revenue exceeds the operating costs of the franchise.

The Government has invited three private operators to bid for the line. Commercial ownership has twice ended in failure, whereas public ownership has set a high standard.

It is important that everyone has the chance to have their say on the future of the East Coast Main Line, including the public, businesses using freight services, and employers who depend on vital rail links with London and the rest of the UK. The East Coast Main Line authorities are preparing a strategic business case that will set out the economic necessity of the line, and we must all contribute.

As things stand, we could well be on the verge of another golden age of rail travel: passenger numbers are up, satisfaction levels are up – yes, fares are also up – but there is a push to invest in rail once again.

I’m an advocate of HS2, like other leaders of the UK’s core cities, but I have always made clear that HS2 needs to be seen alongside investment in East Coast Main Line and not instead of it. HS2 will bring new opportunities to towns and cities; it will drive growth outside of London; cut journey times and carry more passengers the length of the country – a better East Coast Main Line will do all of this. The success of HS2 and the East Coast are integral to each other.

Here in Newcastle we are putting our money where our mouth is by making a multi-million pound investment in transforming Central Station and the surrounding area. Passengers arriving at Newcastle will soon enjoy a magnificent sweeping gateway through the station – one of the best entrances to a city anywhere in the UK. The station portico will be glazed and pedestrianised, providing new retail space, and better passenger facilities including a new travel centre. This is on top of an £8m investment by Nexus in the Metro at Central Station.

This is our statement of confidence in Newcastle as a city and in rail as a mode of transport fit for the future. We all have a duty to champion this line, because we believe in rail, and we believe in the East Coast Main Line.

Devolution can deliver

January 28, 2014

Thanks to Centre for Cities for this event, and congratulations on the publication of Cities Outlook 2014. 

There’s always a risk with this publication that it’s caricatured as a “league table of cities”, and with the emphasis on what we’re doing badly, rather than well.  And your analysis of course brings out the dominant impact of Greater London within the UK economy.

But, for me, this sort of evidence of performance has to be a spur for improvement.  For Newcastle for example it reinforces the challenges where our own city lags behind – to address the deep-seated inequalities we face as a city, to deliver on our plans for housing growth, and grow our private sector business base.  But I also take heart from the positive opportunities we’re providing from growth, investment and jobs – which I’ll say a bit more about in a moment. 

For the core cities as a group, it’s a reminder of our potential.

The core cities together with their surrounding urban areas:

  • Are home to 16 million  people – a third of the population of England
  • Generate 27% of England’s wealth (that’s more than London)
  • House half  the country’s leading universities
  • Contain 28% of highly skilled workers (graduates and above)

We are a vital delivery partner for a Government seeking to accelerate economic growth, and we are already making a significant contribution. But with the right freedoms and flexibilities we could do a lot more.

There is a strong relationship between the ability of cities to drive growth and their levels of local financial control and ability to make policies that match the needs of places.  Financial independence lets cities join things together on the ground to deliver better results, in a way that cannot be matched by doing things by remote control from Whitehall.

The international evidence is very clear. In England 95 percent of all taxes raised in a city go back to the Government, and most of the funding that comes back to us does so with strings attached. This is stifling local innovation and hampering the ability local decision makers to pursue local priorities.

In Canada, cities control ten times more of the tax they raise, in the USA its 7 times and in Germany it is 6 times more. In these countries it is the norm for cities to outperform the national economy. In England only London does this consistently.  English cities lack the level of financial control enjoyed by our international competitors and we are not competing on a level playing field.  Whilst we welcome continued devolution to Scotland and Wales, this does create the risk of a constitutional imbalance which needs to be addressed to free English cities to deliver their plans for jobs and growth.

The core cities group have put forward an ambitious prospectus for growth with clear recommendations for greater devolution and fiscal control.   We’ve seen leadership from Greg Clark, Michael Heseltine and others from within government – matched by the commitment of Richard Lease, Nick Forbes and the other core city leaders.

The wave 1 city deals represent a big step forward in devolution.  We’re looking forward to that same radicalism and commitment to new ideas through the Single Growth Plan process.

I want to mention 3 specific areas:

  • Firstly,  Tax Increment Finance Scheme (TIF), which the Centre for Cities has championed, and is now being delivered as part of Newcastle’s City Deal.  This has allowed us to rapidly speed up delivery plans and construction in our Accelerated Development Zone. For the first time Newcastle Council and our close partners in Gateshead  can keep all of the business rates generated in our Accelerated Development Zone, initiating over £90m of investment, and more over the next 25 years – creating 13,000 jobs,  transforming our city.  Freed up to take the initiative we are not scratching our heads about our economic future, we are on site right now delivering the infrastructure, opportunity and jobs that our city needs.  And Manchester have shown how it’s possible to deliver TIF principles across a wider city region, through their innovative “earn back” agreement.
  • Secondly, through a new more local approach to employment, skills and welfare to work.  The nationally led Work Programme has so far struggled to meet the needs of job seekers in our core cities.  Around half a million people in our cities will complete the programme without finding work.  In stark contrast, locally delivered programmes are delivering better far results. Whilst the national Youth Contract programme is underperforming, the locally delivered pilots in Leeds, Newcastle and Gateshead are delivering results that are nearly twice as effective.
  • And third, by delegating substantial additional investment to local areas, to deliver infrastructure over a much longer-term period, breaking the silos of Whitehall to integrate transport, housing, business support, inward investment, culture and broadband infrastructure. National funding and investment programmes are often cumbersome and inflexible – with a long time lag from bids being invited to benefits being achieved. Local schemes are quicker to deliver and more attuned to the needs of the economy.  Through the Local Enterprise Partnerships, we can bring together commercial expertise and democratic engagement – for the long term future of our cities.

This isn’t about a power grab from Whitehall for its own sake.  It’s about taking responsibility for delivery.  A new approach to city governance, to combined authorities – to both growth and reform of the public sector. 

The Core Cities of England, working alongside the Mayor of London, want the freedom and flexibility to be a good partner to the Government – to help it to deliver the growth and the jobs that we all need. Our ‘City Centred’ campaign makes a series of constructive proposals designed to set cities free to boost skills and jobs,  grow business and innovation, build more houses, strengthen transport networks, increase investment, speed up broadband, purchase cheaper energy, and to join up services to make people’s lives better.

All of these things will feature heavily in party manifestos of every hue ahead of the next election. Delivering on promises and priorities is always more difficult. The Core Cities are convinced that radical devolution can empower us to deliver economic growth, the best outcomes for our communities, and a brighter future for our country. Trust us and we will deliver.


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