In May voters will decide who will serve as the Tees Valley mayor. It is the second time the post will be elected and it comes at a pivotal moment. Restrictions are beginning to lift after over a year in lockdown and our towns are slowly coming back to life.

It’s an opportunity to change things for the better, investing in green jobs and rebalancing the UK economy by unlocking growth across the Northern Powerhouse.

It’s also a chance to remind people of the power of devolution and empowered local government.

Metro Mayors are chosen directly by their electorate to affect real change in their communities. They can integrate public services better to avoid departments operating in silos - and local people falling through the cracks. Effective local leaders can recognise an economic region’s specific strengths - and weaknesses - allowing them to build a powerful case for public and private investment.

In the Tees Valley that has already translated into a new base for the Treasury in Darlington and a Freeport in Teesside.

Many local people feel that, finally, the true economic potential of the Tees Valley is being recognised, creating jobs, growth and regeneration in one of the UK’s so-called ‘left-behind’ areas.

But it is not enough.

Metro Mayors are still held back by central government’s tight grip on powers and funding.

It’s harder for Ministers in Whitehall to spot economic opportunities or to understand the real challenges faced by communities when they don’t know what makes them tick.

It’s no surprise that many Northern people feel locked out of this political system.

Unfortunately, one political faction is seeking to exploit these (very real) concerns to push a radical separatist agenda. Invoking every patronising Northern cliché under the sun, the Northern Independence Party has chosen to ignore the fact that it was a group led by Labour council leaders who did the deal for a Tees Valley devolution agreement – and it was a Conservative Mayor who voters elected.

If NIP believes local decisions should be taken by local people, why is their candidate for the Hartlepool by-election from Huddersfield? If they’re serious about independence, why did they fail to register their party name in time?

And how can we ask government to take the North seriously as an economic and political power when semi-spoof political organisations undermine the case for devolution at every opportunity?

Whether working in Whitehall or Darlo, officials should be working with - not dictating to - our local leaders on local and regional issues, including in transport, skills and schools.

That means electing a second Metro Mayor in the North East, working alongside the Tees Valley Mayor to fight for investment in places such as Berwick and Newton Aycliffe.

Fundamental change in the North East and Tees Valley must be in the hands of local leaders. It means linking Darlington into the high-speed rail network. It means driving up education standards in the region with the highest level of disadvantaged children in the country.

We need the Northern Powerhouse promised in 2014 by George Osborne, a Conservative Chancellor working alongside Labour council leaders to drive the North’s ambitions.

We need to make levelling up here a reality – not just rhetoric.

Neither Northern pretenders nor token bits of minor investment from central government will deliver what is needed.

Henri Murison is Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership