THE talk about the Autumn Statement seems to focus on how we tax the dead and predict inflation.  I’d rather focus on the living, and do without the tarot cards.   

The Westminster bubble is a long way from the North East. Here are five things that would boost our economy that don’t need a magic money tree to pay for them. And while I have a vested interest in the North East, they apply to most of Britain. 

1. Build Northern Powerhouse Rail

Once you pass Northallerton in Yorkshire, in the Prime Minister's constituency, there are only two tracks into the North East. This sclerosis of rail capacity inhibits sustainable economic development. We have to choose between trains to London, or trains to the North West.  Connections to Birmingham or Wales are interminable. 

The price tag is £43bn. But official analysis by Transport for the North shows it would boost the economy by £3.4bn a year. So it’s repaid in 13 years.  Reopening the Leamside Line through County Durham into Tyneside, is part of it, and will cost around £1.2bn.  Sadly Labour have also broken their promise to fund it. 

Unlike HS2, we can deliver projects on time and on budget. The Tyne & Wear Metro Flow project repurposed a freight line into a passenger line, boosting capacity.  The budget was £104m.  We delivered it for £99m. 

2. Provide stable, long-term, devolved funding

That business needs long-term stability is a truism.  But so do charities, community organisations, and the public sector. 

Adult skills was devolved to the North of Tyne in 2020.  Think chefs, welders, fork-lift drivers.  You know, the actual people that are our wealth creators.  Since taking it over from Whitehall, we have increased enrolments from 21,885 a year to 32,769 – for the same budget.  We achieve this 50 per cent increase in value for money by working with employers, trainers, and crucially, the learners. 

It takes skilled people on the ground time to develop good value plans that will actually work.  Stop-start funding invites rushed plans and unstable delivery. 

I’m expecting our bespoke North East Trailblazer deal to be announced in the Autumn Statement.  This gives us consolidated, flexible funding.  We’ve been negotiating with Government, and it’s a good place to start.  We know what works and what doesn’t – give us the cash and let us crack on with it.

3. Invest in the power grid

A lack of grid connections is stalling green energy investment and the jobs it brings.  Investors want to build solar farms, battery plants, and EV charging stations, but can’t get enough electricity through the wires.  More electric vehicles and heat pumps will only accelerate this problem. 

The Government has correctly identified that the current queuing system for grid connections needs tweaking.  It was a first-come-first-served queue. It's changing so if you have planning permission and finance secured, your project gets bumped up the queue. 

But the sheer number of connections is too slow.  I’ve been working with the National Grid to get the cables over the River Tyne taken off pylons and put underground, so we can get taller wind turbines built in our yards instead of overseas.  You don’t have to be an engineer like me to see the economic potential for British industry. 

4. Lower the Universal Credit Taper

Or put another way, end the vicious poverty trap by incentivising work instead of punishing vulnerability.  The Universal Credit taper means that for every £1 a low-paid worker earns, they lose 55p in benefits.  Other benefits, such as school meals and housing costs also get cut when low-paid workers hit a threshold.  

Detailed research in the North East shows how in some cases, a family of two working adults, with two children, keep only 16.8 per cent of their wage increases.  By the time you add in extra transport costs, meals, and childcare such as after-school or breakfast clubs, it can literally not be worth working extra hours or getting a minor promotion. 

Our Child Poverty Prevention Programme is working with 98 schools to poverty proof the school day, to help parents caught in this poverty trap.  But the Chancellor could just end it overnight.  I’m sick of hearing calls for tax breaks for billionaires to boost our economy.  Let’s have a system that helps families and single people take home a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  

5. Support Regional Wealth Generation

As Mayor, I have one major target from Government – to create 10,000 jobs in 30 years. Four and a half years in, and I’ve created 5,377. I’m 11 years ahead of schedule. These are new jobs from our direct investment, over and above organic growth. 

In 2021 I wrote a paper on Regional Wealth Generation for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). It argues for further fiscal devolution so the money generated in the North East stays in the North East. One way is an ‘Earnback’ mechanism.

Despite smashing my jobs creation target, we get no more funding.  But if we were devolved the first 18 months of payroll taxes, we can invest in more job creation.  Treasury keeps everything thereafter, likely 70 per cent of payroll taxes over the employment lifetime, plus all other direct and indirect taxes.  Better still, it costs them nothing until after the jobs are created and the taxes are flowing. 

It’s a good deal for UK PLC, and a good deal for the region. A win-win that incentivises the creation of well-paid jobs, with all of the attendant social benefits, and boosts regional investment power.

  • Jamie Driscoll is the independent directly elected mayor for the North of Tyne