Does North want to be taken seriously?

One of the North's leading politicians has been hounded out of office at the age of 48. Jim considers the fate of Newcastle leader Nick Forbes and its implications for our voice in the Levelling Up debate.

Jim Hancock

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A FEW WORDS ON UKRAINE

Forgive me for turning away from Ukraine this week. It is so depressing, save for the great courage of the Ukrainian people and the outpouring of goodwill towards the refugees.

The report that Russia has battlefield crematorium vans for their fallen soldiers says it all about the value Putin puts on human dignity.

THE FALL OF FORBES

Nick Forbes has been the excellent leader of Newcastle Council for over a decade. More importantly from our point of view, he is chair of the Convention of the North, the nearest thing we have got to an organisation to bring democracy to Levelling Up.

Forbes will not hold this post for much longer. He has been deselected in his ward and hence will not be a candidate in this May’s local elections. He has fallen foul of left wingers in his ward and tensions with a local MP.

It is important for all councillors and MPs to be democratically elected, but it does pose a problem when we are trying to get the attention of Whitehall in respect of the Levelling Up agenda. The leader of the Convention of the North representing millions of people from the Scottish border to Liverpool and Hull has been removed by a tiny group of people in the Arthur’s Hill ward of Newcastle. Forbes was a familiar face to ministers. Indeed, it is felt his Convention duties took him away from Arthur’s Hill too often. That was an issue that should have been managed better by the Labour Party, to protect his back whilst he represented us to people like Michael Gove.

Now the Levelling Up Secretary is going to have to get used to a new voice of the North.

Of course, there are other major figures in the North, the elected mayors. Ben Houchen (Tees Valley) Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) and Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire) are all raising the profiles of their areas, but it was Forbes who had the task of bringing us all together.

That was a vital job because there remains great uncertainty about how Gove’s Levelling Up agenda is going to be delivered. A Centre for Cities debate this week had experts doubting whether all government departments were on board with Govie. They pointed out the final details of the White Paper were drawn up at the height of Partygate when there was great uncertainty about the Prime Minister’s future.

I would just add that we cannot tell yet what effect the Ukraine crisis will have on a whole range of domestic policies, including Levelling Up. But in terms of finance and distracted ministers, it is unlikely to be positive.

Public support for devolution and elected mayors is rising, but not spectacularly according to recent polling. People want more say over housing, transport, and crime. But to energise that lukewarm enthusiasm, voters want to see results and a strong leader for the whole of the North who doesn’t see his career terminated at the age of forty-eight. Such is the fate of Nick Forbes.

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