Sue Jeffrey delivered the following speech to Labour colleagues in local government from across the country, speaking at The Local Government Association's annual conference on 18 February.
"We are looking here at how to get the most out of devolution, but I have worked on the devolution agenda for the last 25 years,
so asking how we can get the most out of the deal seems like a bit of a daft question.
Devolution has been Labour party policy for as long as I can remember and as a Labour politician giving me devolved powers, however restricted, has to be a good thing.
Right now the Labour party, even out of power in Westminster, has the chance to use the devolution agenda to transform our local economies and secure a better deal for our people.
But the key to making devolution work will not be found in arguments over form or function, or whether or not the deals make up for the cuts make up for local government funding – they don’t, frankly.
Instead, it is about how we see and use devolution as a real force for change only, giving a voice to those fighting for a sense of identity, and positioning it as a clear response to the rejection of London-led policy making seen in the Brexit vote.
It sounds like a statement of the obvious, but getting that identity issue right is vital for political parties, and if you want an example of how identity and devolution work together, just look to Scotland.
No one in this room wants to be delivering Tory devolution, and I know in some parts of the country there is still apprehension about elected mayors. I get that, but for us in the Tees Valley, the debate has moved on and we are preparing to seize what is on offer to rebuild ourselves and renew our relationship with the people who elect us.
When Theresa May took over in Downing Street, it was said that she was not keen on the mayoral devolution agenda, because she thought it would become a powerbase for Labour. She’s partly right.
Mayors will become a new power in our political landscape, but those who seek to be purely party political figures will, I think, fail.
Just as in any election, mayors have to reflect their local areas.
But more than that, they are a focal point for our identity, a chance to bring together many different voices, geographical and political and sectoral, to unite those in a powerful new office.
I am currently reading a book called If Mayors Ruled the World. It talks of the pragmatism of mayors, their overriding motivation to get things done for local people.
We saw that this month the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, Greg Fisher, set out what he thought the UK could learn from the US and its local leaders.
His focus was not to secure more power, it was to build more partnerships and his city has made great strides, thanks not to any formal legislation, but by leveraging the power of the mayor’s office to convene stakeholders and set an agenda for inclusive growth.
The mayor there has managed to get things done by bringing together different and competing efforts to build and deliver change.
I firmly believe that the power of devolution, the power of mayors, comes in the ability to harness the talent and resources we already have and use them to deliver locally honed services that work for all.
But to make that work we need real devolution, and government – not departments, just ministers – need to deliver on their side of the deal.
It is notoriously difficult to wrest real power from Whitehall.
In our city regions, hit by Tory austerity and denied even the chance to have their complaints heard, this can be a new era of rebuilding our power and pride and using our common identity to do things for ourselves and stop London picking what is best for us.
That rebuilding work in the Tees Valley will see us use a devolution deal designed to be purely economic in use to change lives in a much wider way.
And that speaks to the real challenge for devolution – connecting with people and making devolution relevant, providing them a voice and addressing their concerns.
In the Tees Valley we saw in the steel industry what happens when large foreign firms and an equally remote Government in London turn their backs on us. We know that rebuilding our economy must go hand in hand with removing our dependence on others.
Or in low pay, a league in which the Tees Valley comes shamefully high. I as mayor will speak to these concerns and build a coalition to deliver a voluntary living wage.
What I’m saying here isn’t in any way radical, but it is a sense a new way of doing business for many of us.
If devolution is to work is has to be a process built not on what London thinks is best but instead one where local identity, built from inside out, which is proudly inclusive, deliverable and pragmatic."