VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) hosted a discussion about devolution in the North East at their AGM last Friday. The speakers (Ed Cox, Lord Shipley, Simon Henig and Sue Jeffrey) reflected on a possible North East Powerhouse. Our local councils seem to think they cannot afford to miss out on the offer of more local decision-making power and some money from Westminster, even though it comes with government's insistence on a locally elected mayor, possibly for the whole region.
One of the speakers suggested the Powerhouse could ensure all north east employers pay the Minimum Wage, but that will be a national requirement by 2020 anyway so what would be the point? Several spoke of the opportunity to join up police, fire and ambulance services into a single 'Blue Light' service but that's unlikely to catch the public imagination. We do have more of a regional identity than other parts of England but is that enough to overcome our local differences?
The trouble seems to be that the idea of a North East Powerhouse is not an exciting one for the electorate and that is a democratic problem in a mayoral election. Politicians would not want a repeat of the Police and Crime Commissioners election when just 15% of people voted.
So here's my big idea to get us all behind a north east Powerhouse - what if we were to make our region the best in the country for children? Just think what that would mean - good quality affordable family homes; flexible, family friendly employment policies; health advice and encouragement for parents so that every baby has the best start in life; support for families with small children in Children's Centres, childcare and community groups; good schools hand-in-hand with employers so that school leavers move into apprenticeships, jobs or college; neighbourhoods where children can play safely; community activities for young people run by good role models.
Businesses bring employment to places where people can have a good way of life, and that is what being the best place in the country for children would produce. The NECC would encourage business to relocate here not only because of our landscape, coast, cities, history, culture and transport links but also because of what we offered for families and how we trained our young people for work. Families would want to move here too and our young people would not feel compelled to move away to find work.
So what about it? The north east - best place in the UK for children!