On the 23rd of May, the country took part in the European elections. Even though we were supposed to have left the EU on 29th of March we went to the polls to elect a bunch of MEP’s. It was perhaps no surprise that by far the biggest winner was the newly created Brexit party. This party, created just a few weeks ago in April, went on to return 29 of the 73 seats up for election. So, around 40% of UK MEP’s were elected on a ticket to leave the EU. Oh the irony; you couldn’t make it up, as Richard Littlejohn would say.
However, perhaps more importantly, for the region, earlier in May we had the local council elections along with the election of the North of Tyne Mayor. Creating the post of a North East Mayor was quite controversial with Durham and Gateshead, in the end, declining to support it. With an election turnout of just over 30% seems the post wasn’t all that enthusiastically embraced by the regions residents either. Nevertheless, we had an election and it was won by Jamie Driscoll who is our newly elected North of Tyne Mayor.
I’m still not 100% sure how the position of Mayor sits in relation to the administration and delivery of regional governance but nevertheless, interested to read Mayor Driscoll’s initial manifesto and vison for the region. One of his first policy commitments is ‘Community Wealth Building.’ In short, the idea is to create an environment to encourage more investment and spending locally with the aim of driving up wages and jobs. This is something I support and have championed before. While the benefits are economically sound, the test will be in initiating the right circumstances to encourage it. Mayor Driscoll and his team may like to look at using the LM3 concept as a foundation for building it. I wrote about LM3 in my column on the 1st June 2017 and I’m sure the North East Chamber of Commerce could also help and advise on LM3 if asked.
While I wish the new Mayor the best of success with increasing community wealth, I’m less enthusiastic about making the North of Tyne a net-zero carbon region within the next 10 years. Even if it could be achieved, which I doubt, a zero carbon region will have a zero impact on climate change. Furthermore, some green policies may well make it more expensive for businesses to operate in the region which, in turn, could prevent investment and see some companies move away if the plans to create zero carbon emissions adds operational overheads that could make them uncompetitive.
That all said, I do think sensible plans to reduce pollution should be considered. These don’t need to be radical either. Simple things, like more school buses to help curb the school runs, expansion of the Metro system and the creation of Park and Ride schemes to the north and south of Newcastle, would be relatively quick and easy to implement. Also, unlike a congestion charge, I wager, would have fewer opponents.
Speaking of a congestion charge, this is the latest idea to emerge from Newcastle City Council. The congestion charge is, in my view, less about curbing vehicle emissions and more about cheap revenue raising. Frankly, their comparisons to London are misleading as the London congestion was predominantly commuter traffic as next to nobody drives right through London. In Newcastle, however, many of the roads earmarked for the congestion charge are main trunk and through roads for traffic going to Gateshead, South Shields and Sunderland. Highly unlikely then that a congestion charge will significantly reduce traffic, but it’ll certainly raise a few quid to help fund council coffers.
On a more serious note, the increased congestion in and around Newcastle has, in many aspects, been caused by the mind-bogglingly dreadful plans implemented by the councils own road and transport department. Two projects come to mind that, rather than ease traffic congestion, have exacerbated it considerably. They are the major junction of the A167 at Cowgate and the B1318 Great North Road from Wideopen to Gosforth.
The junction at Cowgate was always busy, but following the extensive and, no doubt, costly new layout is now so congested at peak times queuing cars have been known to stretch back as far as the central motorway. So, quite literally, rather than ease traffic flow this white elephant does the exact opposite. Even more mind-bogglingly bizarre is the redevelopment of the B1318 stretch of the Great North Road. A scheme promoted to reduce congestion and make it safer for pedestrians. However, just like Cowgate, does the exact opposite. The cycle lanes are so badly designed the majority of cyclists use either the pavement or the road. If that’s not bad enough, there are now 34 separate sets of traffic lights, pelican and zebra crossings along a mile stretch of dual carriageway where traffic now literally grinds to a halt at peak periods. This not only increases pollution, but also causes drivers to become increasingly impatient and raises the risk of road rage and dangerous driving. I see many a driver run red lights along it and it’s only a matter of time before a pedestrian is seriously injured or worse.
It simply beggars belief, that I can only assume these hugely expensive debacles were either a deliberate policy to create congestion, to justify the charges, or plain incompetence. Either way, those responsible should be held to account. Over to you, Jamie.
This article was first published in the Newcastle Journal on the 6th June 2019