Jamie Driscoll – the Labour Party candidate – was elected as Mayor of the North of Tyne in May 2019. His manifesto was heavily shaped by the principles of community wealth building, and he has an ambitious agenda for the North of Tyne Combined Authority. He recently took time to speak to the Community Wealth Building Unit about devolution, economic democracy, campaigning on a community wealth building manifesto – and the progress he has made since taking office.
Joe Bilsborough: Hiya Jamie – thanks for taking the time to talk today, and congratulations on your election. I was wondering if you could start by speaking a little bit about the way in which community wealth building shaped the program you stood on.
Jamie Driscoll: Well, when you go and stand for office, you’ve got to think about why you’re doing it, and what you want to achieve. We live in a world that is largely run for the benefit of the super-rich, to the extent that it’s actually run for anybody. One of the big problems that neoliberalism has created is this belief in self-correcting markets, which has led to a lot of things not being run in anybody’s interests. And when it comes to so many of the social problems that we face – as someone who grew up as a working class lad, someone who has been a local councillor and trade unionist – you see a lot of these problems and you think: if people just had decent, well-paid work, we could solve an awful lot of problems.
So the issue is how you get to having an economy that gives people an opportunity to have work that is meaningful, sustainable, permanent, and where they feel they’ve got a sense of security. You start to look at how that’s possible, and you inevitably come to something – whether you know it’s called that or not – called community wealth building.
Joe Bilsborough: Yes – community wealth building is definitely a policy frame that, as you say, is driven by a common sensical aspect. How significant do you think this was when you were out campaigning and knocking on doors? When you were speaking to people, did they get it, so to speak: did it resonate with their experiences?
Jamie Driscoll: Yeah, and on more levels than people might realise. It did on the doorstep, both in terms of the housing and the jobs, but actually it was also surprising how much it resonated with the business community.
Early in the campaign, I was on at a business hustings event. I was up against a Tory millionaire, and up against an independent who had been chair of the Chamber of Commerce, and so it was a real away game for me! I started by talking about community wealth building, the procurement aspect of it, how it’s going to help small businesses, and about the diversity aspect of it. About how with our equalities unit we’ll be making it easier for businesses to be able to employ in a more diverse way – because so many businesses would love to be more diverse in their workforce. The problem is, they just don’t have the in-house skills, and it’s really expensive to have someone like KPMG charge you 500 quid just for putting their name on the paper.
People came up to me at the end of that event, and this one bloke said, “You’re never going to convince me to vote Labour, but I’m going to vote for you because this makes sense.” It has real, real cut-through. Somebody else, from another organisation, came and said, “Yeah. Everything you’re saying about diversity is absolutely the way to tackle it.”
You do get some resistance I think, even with people who should agree with it – even with some Labour councillors – because it’s called the Preston Model and people say, “Well why haven’t we got the Newcastle model?” or whatever else. But when you start to talk about the specifics of it, they say, “Well, of course we should be doing that, we want to do that, and some people are doing aspects of it.” It’s about the fact that each extra little layer that you do reinforces all the other layers.
I’ve found the easiest way to explain it is – it’s about keeping the money here. Because every time we spend money it goes off through a corporation who’s not necessarily paying their tax, or is trying to reduce their tax burden even if it’s paying some. It could be invested in Dubai, it could be invested in properties along the Thames that no one lives in, all these sorts of things. At the same time, businesses just need investment, and this is the way that you get that investment – and people get that.
Joe Bilsborough: When did you personally first hear about community wealth building and the work being done around it?
Jamie Driscoll: With that name, probably fairly recently – in the last couple of years. I’ve run an economics reading group and am familiar with various sorts of things, participatory budgeting, the co-operative economy, market socialism, and all sorts of things like that. But the community wealth building model, I heard about it when Preston started to get a bit of traction.
Joe Bilsborough: Can you tell us a bit about the specific plans and policies that you’re hoping to implement in the North of Tyne that are based around or apply community wealth building principles?
Jamie Driscoll: Yeah. When people talk about community wealth building they tend to think about public sector procurement, which is undoubtedly part of it. We’re at the point now where there is a willingness to engage from key anchor institutions, we’ve got two universities, quite big universities, two health trusts who are involved. It’s about embedding the social value in them.
A key part of it, though, is the living wage agenda. We’re putting something together called the Good Work Business Pledge. That’s partly the real living wage, but it’s partly also things like access to trade unions, things like secure employment, things like mental health provision. The Holy Grail would be getting 100% of employers onboard on that. You never get a 100% of anything. But we’re lining up some early adopters. Obviously ourselves, we will be doing it. We’re getting the universities onboard – they’re going to become a real living wage employer this year, which is excellent. Once it’s got a bit of traction, that gets those middle tier of businesses to start to think “well, we could do that. We’re going to lose out on employment opportunities, on getting the best staff.” That’s a key component of it.
We’re also pulling together the preliminary work on the People’s Bank, in terms of getting the due diligence done on that model. That’s with the CSBA model, so that’s similar to the work that’s being done with Plymouth and the South West Mutual, and Preston and Wirral with the North West mutual. That’s basically just going to be a high-street bank, but owned by the people so it keeps its money here. The unique thing about a bank is that it can recycle money in a way that no other organisation can. If you put 20 million capitalisation into it, it can lend out close to half a billion. And then everybody’s interest on that, rather than disappear and end up in the financial system, comes back into the pockets of local people. That’s how you reflate an economy.
With housing, we’re looking at a significant cooperative model because, as every socialist knows, council housing in this country was torpedoed by the Thatcher government and the right to buy and the refusal to allow people to retain their council house receipts. But, if the housing isn’t owned by the state, you can lease the housing on a long-term basis, whatever it is. If you’ve got good quality homes which are owned by a cooperative you can asset-lock it, and it never gets sold off. That’s some of the specifics we’re working out.
Joe Bilsborough: Those are some really promising ideas in terms of how we lay down an institutional infrastructure that will provide resilience and ensure this work cannot easily be undone or dismantled. I’m aware you’ve only been in this elected post for a few months, but could you speak a little bit about how things are progressing with these plans?
Jamie Driscoll: The one we’re furthest along with is the Good Work Business Pledge and the real living wage agenda because that’s something that is about the convening power. One of the difficulties is that I’ve been in office for less than four months and it takes three months to spend anything. You’ve got to go through a technical officers group, then you’ve got to go through evaluation and then through the investment panel, and then take it to pre-cabinet and cabinet.
That’s a particularly difficult thing to do in a short frame of time. I’m only just getting my team in. My team will be in by the end of September, so we are a brand new organisation. Most of the time when a politician comes into power they take over an existing organisation, but we’re building it from scratch. It’s only this week that we appointed our last director who won’t be taking post until Christmas time – so there is a bit of expectation management there.
We’ve already got it agreed that we will be going out for tender with the due diligence on the People’s Bank. We’re meeting with people like Homes England to see how we’re going to put together work on the housing.
One of the things we would like to do – I haven’t yet got that through cabinet – is a co-op accelerator fund. Basically, you put X million pounds in there, and that’s a revolving loan fund. It’s notoriously difficult for co-ops to get capital because most start-ups have to do it in the form of equity capital. For co-ops, you can’t.
What you can do of course, since they’ve changed the law in August 2014, is put in withdrawable share capital. You can do that, and sign it up in such a way, that ever after, depending on how much money you are giving them, the cooperative always gives five percent of its surplus back to that fund. So they’re paying it forward for the next layer of cooperatives to come through, as opposed to it being a profit-making commercial system. That sort of stuff is really quite powerful – and that’s where we are with it.
Joe Bilsborough: That sounds very exciting, and leads into my next question. You’re taking office in a new role, the first person ever to hold the role. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about the challenges and some of the opportunities that you see stemming from this? And also a little bit about the specific powers that will be vested in you.
Jamie Driscoll: That’s an evolving situation. The current Prime Minister – by the time this goes out, and with a bit of luck! – might not be the current Prime Minister anymore. When I came into office, Theresa May was Prime Minister. You had one set of ministers and now we’ve got a different set of ministers. They’re, obviously, all busy expelling each other from the Tory Party. Getting them to take a call isn’t easy at the moment.
There will be a general election sometime soon. I think everybody is of that opinion. In terms of developing devolution, which is where a lot of the powers come from, I think community wealth building really does require the Labour Party to take devolution very seriously. England is unusual, in that it’s the only developed country that has no regional devolution. That’s how we start to get more powers.
We have adult education. It’s coming on-line next year. That will be devolved from the 1st of August. That gives us the opportunity to control our own skills agenda and to put in contract clauses. One of the problems some of the people I’ve been speaking to have is that these things end up being subcontracted and subcontracted further. One provider of adult literacy was saying that she finds it very hard to get paid, never mind paid on time. You can start to put these clauses into contracts, and that makes a little bit of a difference, so you have that level of influence.
When it comes to getting universities and health services and anchor institutions to work together, that’s very much a collaborative effort. I’ve been talking to one of the universities just this morning. They all get this – they’re just really looking for some leadership to help them do it. That’s useful.
With other things, you have to work through your cabinet. In my cabinet, I have two Labour leaders and one Conservative leader. Getting people to work together requires not just agreeing on the values of having an inclusive economy, but also getting the language right – because I think community wealth building is a set of really common-sense ideas. Although it will upset certain corporates, it shouldn’t necessarily upset people who are perhaps socially or even financially conservative.
Joe Bilsborough: That makes sense. I think the framing is a central issue. I was hoping to just pick your brain a little bit more about the devolution aspect. Are there specific things you would like to see changed at Westminster, or specifically devolved, to give local people more power, as well as office holders like yourself, in bringing this agenda about?
Jamie Driscoll: Absolutely, yeah. There are a lot of things that are on national frameworks that are designed and tend to be influenced by – lets be frank about it – people in London. It’s not that there’s not pockets of deprivation in London, there really are, and some of them are very, very serious and very large. But, mine is by far the largest Combined Authority in terms of area, yet there is not a single metre of three-lane motorway in it.
Joe Bilsborough: Wow.
Jamie Driscoll: You can’t get from side to side or top to bottom, which takes you an hour to drive, without going on single carriageway roads. Now, if the Department of Transport had been based in Newcastle, no one would have had to have written a report, no one would have to lobby, there would be no commission, we would just have motorways.
It’s that being out of touch and being out of people’s minds that’s the problem. When you get things like devolution, it allows us to connect local services together in a way that it’s just not possible to do from Whitehall because of the information time lag. You need to be seeing people, speaking to people. We see things like the idea that you can have national engagement for people to come up with community cafes. I don’t think it can be done.
But there are certain problems that can’t be done on the local authority level. That’s why the city-region model has evolved, and I think is the future. We do need significant engagement, but in terms of powers, what we could really do with is the ability to get things funded nationally on a per capita basis. Otherwise, you’re always going to end up with problems when it comes to things that are peripheral.
This is particularly true somewhere like the North East. People grow up here, their schooling is paid for here. Their early healthcare is paid for here. They go elsewhere to work, pay their taxes, and then they come back here just at the point either when they’re starting a family or when they’re retiring and then using public services more. A lot of the people wealth is generated here, even though perhaps a lot of the taxes aren’t paid here. What we need is taxation devolved on a per capita basis but allowed to be spent locally.
Of course, you do need the national frameworks; obviously, the legal framework has to be the same across the country. But, when it comes to how you want to engage with communities, how you want to sort out your own planning, how you want to integrate your transport, I think these things work a lot better if they’re devolved.
We’re talking about cities competing on an international basis. Small towns in the North East like Ashington can’t possibly compete with the state of California or the city region of Munich or something like that. So we do need that devolution.
Joe Bilsborough: Aside from devolution, what do you think that potential would be if we got, at some point, hopefully soon, a government at the national level, which was committed to community wealth building?
Jamie Driscoll: It would be transformational for pushing the sustainability agenda. Community wealth building goes through every single one of the policies in my manifesto – but so, too, does the green industrial revolution and the environmental sustainability agenda.
One of the projects that we’re working on is a local food and drink supply. There are loads of cafes and restaurants, they love to say, “We’ve got local produce.” But, actually, at the moment, it’s a massive pain in the backside for them to do that because they’ve got to basically pick up the phone or type emails to individual suppliers.
So we’d like to develop an IT platform that gets local primary suppliers, like farmers; secondary suppliers, people who make pies or brew beer, and gets them together, almost like an eBay where people can go and connect. That’s community wealth building obviously because it’s keeping the money local and supporting local economies.
It’s also an environmental benefit because you’ve got sustainability of small producers, who aren’t then necessarily shipping their goods half-way around the world.
And the third plank is social sustainability. That’s the community part of community wealth building, where you have community interest companies, you have cooperative housing, cooperative forms of working. People are not being alienated, they’re not cogs in a machine. You don’t have large employers pulling out and decimating communities.
Those three planks of economic, environmental, and social sustainability, that’s what community wealth building is.
Joe Bilsborough: Agreed – something I picked up on when I was reading through the manifesto is the way that a lot of the different sections and policy ideas seems to both overlap and be underpinned by a community wealth building approach in one way or another. The manifesto’s title – ‘Prosperity You Can Be Part Of’ – really fits into the wider agenda of what the community wealth building movement is trying to do: not top-down but bottom-up; not just about making people’s lives better, but about democratising the economy and really devolving power to people in a meaningful sense.
Both from your experience campaigning and your experience now in office, what can we as people involved in this movement be doing to make sure that it stays bottom-up and something people are connected with?
Jamie Driscoll: What I think is really needed is an easy way to inspire people. Normally it takes quite a bit of time to talk it through with people or you have to pick one specific example and talk them through that.
I know there are one or two little animated diagrams on the internet of these things, but I think if we were to produce something that was almost like a model that you could physically play with, that would be very powerful. We could get a university onboard to do it, as a project for some MSc students. With a model where people could see the difference when money stays in an economy and is recycled rather than leaking out, I think that would probably one of the more powerful persuasion tools we could use.
You could give that to a community – and that community could be anything. We could be talking about the small business community or we might mean a community in terms of a geographic estate of residents. But whatever that group of people coming together is, if you’ll just say, “well look, here’s the idea, this is how you play with it,” then that starts firing off all those cascades of imagination in their minds.
They’ll be thinking, “we could do it on that basis.” People learn by playing and getting stuck in, and I think that’s how we are actually going to enthuse people, not just to think it’s a good idea, but to roll their sleeves up and get on with it.
Joe Bilsborough: Is that something that you’ve been thinking about in your role, ways of almost bypassing the old ways of doing politics and really bringing people in?
Jamie Driscoll: Yeah, we really want to change the way political engagement is done and make it really participatory. I had a very good meeting with an organisation that’s supported by the university, which gets a lot of the older population together and gets their wisdom and experience when it comes to doing things like designing houses for aging and all of these things. Even things like making sure that the park benches are actually suitable for people, making sure there is somewhere for them to put their walking stick. That sort of engagement makes a massive difference, and that’s why I’m pushing for a citizen’s assembly on climate change in the North of Tyne as well.
It’s one of the challenges of being a mayor, you have to work with the constituent authorities – you’re not their boss. And the democrat in me kind of likes that, even though sometimes you wish people would listen to you first time!
That kind of engagement, that democratisation is essential. I think as someone who is an IT developer, who understands networks and how much more powerful networks are than hierarchies, how much more resilient they are, it’s clear that we’ve got to change our economic mindset away from growth and towards resilience.
Because when we’re facing things like a mental health crisis amongst children, never mind things like rising sea levels and the Amazon being on fire, we have to start to think about what is the future going to be. It can’t be forever just consuming resources faster to make more profits. It’s got to be about how we’re to live our lives. I don’t see that there is any possible way that you can do that without people being actively in charge of their own futures.
Joe Bilsborough: So the goal is to create a virtuous circle – bringing people in to the decision-making process, in order for them to create and shape a better future that they want to live in?
Jamie Driscoll: Absolutely. That will take time and patience. The North East has pockets of deprivation going back to the 1980s when shipyards and steel works and mines were being closed. There are communities that have been left behind for a long time and then there’s also a very vibrant and successful city centre. We are going to have to accept that not everyone is going to come onboard and decide that they want to run their own cooperatives in the first six months. That’s going to involve a level of training and mind-shift. But as I said in my inauguration speech: democracy is a two-way process. The highest patriotism is engaging in civic life.