Will Tanner: Devolution. Conservatives should embrace England’s mayoral moment.

24 Jun

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with devolution. Philosophically, decentralisation sits well within the conservative tradition of empowering people and places to make their own decisions, and restricting the centralising tendencies of the state.

We might naturally think of Burke’s little platoons, de Tocqueville’s foundations of American democracy, or Disraeli’s social reforms.

But at the sharp end of politics it is Conservatives that had to confront some of the worst abuses of decentralised control in the past, from Militant’s municipal control of Liverpool in the 1970s to Scottish separatism today.

And it is Conservative councils, particularly in the party’s rural heartlands, that have been most resistant to the imposition of powerful new mayors with a direct mandate to replace existing county and district councils.

It is tempting, on the basis of this recent history, to see the worst in plans to devolve power and control to a new cadre of city and county mayors.

Some fear the creation of more Sadiq Khans: figures who at times use their positions more as a rabble-rousing soap box than a mandate for delivery. Others ask why a Conservative Government would deliberately cede control of Britain’s biggest cities to local electorates that increasingly vote Labour.

And even those more supportive of decentralisation urge caution on grounds that England’s mayors are still relatively new and untested.

These objections are understandable, but they are not particularly convincing. The truth is that devolving power to more and stronger mayors is not just philosophically within the conservative tradition, but also economically and politically sensible for the Conservatives to pursue.

It offers an opportunity for a Government beset by challenges on other fronts to “give back control” to the places that most need levelling up, address the UK’s great economic weakness – poor regional governance – and should boost the Conservative vote too.

There are three reasons why conservatives should embrace a new mayoral moment. The first is the overbearing power of Whitehall in British politics. Conservatives rail against the ratio of tax to GDP but just as pernicious is the share of tax raised and spent centrally versus locally.

Just five per cent of tax revenue is raised locally in the UK, a third of the level in France and a sixth of that in Germany. Of that revenue, only a quarter is spent locally, compared to half in the US and three quarters in Canada.

And it’s getting worse: between 1995 and 2017, the share of public spending controlled below central government fell, from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, despite rising almost everywhere else in the OECD.

Even in London, which has enjoyed increasing levels of autonomy since the mayoralty was established in 2000, only eight per cent of revenue spending is currently controlled by the mayor. In other areas, this is far lower: in the West Midlands, just 0.4 per cent of the revenue budget is controlled by Andy Street; 84 per cent is controlled by national government.

And while Sadiq Khan’s control of Transport for London and affordable housing funding means that 43 per ccent of capital spending in London is controlled locally, in other regions this is far lower: just 26 per cent in the North West and 28 per cent in the West Midlands.

This centralisation is not just a block on local democracy – depriving local places of self-determination and control – it is a block on overall growth, too. Painstaking evidence collated by academics like Professor Philip McCann shows that countries with a layer of regional or “meso” government tend to grow both faster and more equally.

This is because local areas act as both local laboratories – trialling new policies to attract investment, support jobs and upskill workers – and competitors – forcing local leaders to be more ambitious and learn from what works.

The second reason is that, despite being new, mayors are not untested. In fact, in the short time they have been in place in England many have demonstrated the virtues of the mayoral model.

In the last few years, dilapidated regional bus, tram and train systems have started to be reinvigorated. In the West Midlands, Andy Street has streamlined the skill system to drive up apprenticeship numbers and quality. While Ben Houchen has overseen the doubling of Foreign Direct Investment into Tees Valley from almost £5 billion to almost £10 billion between 2016-19.

Conservatives can rail against the fact that some of these schemes were delivered by Labour mayors. But the reality is many of these services were neglected by national administrations of different colours over the last few decades.

And at a moment when central government is being pulled in multiple directions, from Ukraine to the cost of living and inflation, mayors offer a vehicle for getting things done. If devolution is the price of delivery, then so be it.

Third, mayors offer a route for the Conservatives to win. In every area outside London, mayoral turnout has risen steadily over time and name recognition is high. Six in ten Mancunians can correctly name Andy Burnham and four in ten Teessiders can name Ben Houchen as their respective mayors, compared to the one in ten voters who can name their council leader.

And, because people know their mayors, when they do good things voters are more likely to vote for their party.

Take the Red Wall seat of Hartlepool. Between 2012 and 2018, Conservative performance in Hartlepool almost exactly tracked nearby South Tyneside. But after Ben Houchen’s election in 2017, the Tory vote share in Hartlepool has started to tick up. In 2021, it was four points higher than South Tyneside, and by 2022 it was a massive 18 points higher.

This is not simply because the Hartlepool electorate contains more latent conservatism than nearby areas: Hartlepool is demographically similar to Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead, so the Red Wall realignment should have played out evenly in all of them.

This suggests a “Houchen effect” that has boosted the reputation of the party in the area – and points to the possibility of Conservatives using mayoral delivery to increase their political popularity across the Red Wall.

In future, the Conservative beachhead established at the last election may well be built upon by Mayors in North Yorkshire, Hull and East Riding, Cumbria, and the East Midlands. And in the event of a future Labour government, these may be the Conservative outriders that give people confidence to vote Tory again.

So mayors have demonstrated their potential. But they have done it with one hand tied behind their backs.

Whitehall’s funding streams are so complex, and so tightly held, that the Levelling Up Department alone has 16 distinct funding pots that local areas can bid into, including one to fund public toilets. Mayors have very limited ability to raise local revenue for local priorities, and few direct incentives to grow the local economy to support local investment and infrastructure.

In the Levelling Up White Paper, Michael Gove rightly set out ambitious plans to expand the mayoral devolution model to every area of England that wants it – and many counties and city regions are currently negotiating deals. This is a good start.

But we should go further – by giving mayors a single funding settlement similar to those negotiated with Whitehall departments and devolving 1p in every £1 of local income tax revenue – equivalent to £6 billion a year – to fund new responsibilities over local trains, skills and energy systems.

In return for more power, mayors should submit to additional accountability, from strengthened mayoral scrutiny panels, select committee questioning and greater local tax raising. This would strengthen local democracy, while also extending its reach.

In the last five years, Whitehall has taken back control of power and money from Brussels. It is time to give back control to Britain’s historic cities and counties.

The post Will Tanner: Devolution. Conservatives should embrace England’s mayoral moment. first appeared on Conservative Home.

The Northern Research Group Conference. Fibre-optics and Levelling-Up in Britain’s Las Vegas.

20 Jun

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I had a welcome reminder of this fact when, at last Friday’s Northern Research Group conference in Doncaster, Nick Fletcher, the MP for Don Valley and the conference’s opening speaker, informed the attendant MPs, local councillors, party members, lobbyists, and hacks that ‘Donny’ had been Britain’s Las Vegas in the eighteenth century.

There’s my title and theme, I thought – an easy introduction to 900-or-so words riffing on disgruntled Northern MPs complaining about how the Prime Minister had abandoned them, how levelling-up has so far proved an empty promise, and how scared they were at losing their seats. Unfortunately for me, the event proved far less negative than I had cynically expected. Instead, it was a fascinating and worthwhile insight into a potentially transformative policy agenda.

The structure of the day was simple: a series of speeches, followed by breakouts into policy-focused panels, followed by plenary sessions where panel-members would feed back the policy ideas generated. All this would culminate in a small NRG manifesto that could be presented to the conference’s not-so-secret mystery guest. Unfortunately, that mystery guest was in Kyiv, rather than Doncaster, so the Secretary of State for Levelling Up took his place.

The conference’s only similarity with Thompson’s novel was the heat, as the racecourse we were in baked in 30-odd degrees. The event’s ethos leant far more into “earnest discussion of fibre-optic rollouts in Northumbria” than to excessive drugs and booze ingestion – although if the bar had opened for thirsty attendees, they would have done a roaring trade. Instead, we were left with some hastily refilled water jugs and tempting buffet lunches to get us through the hours.

Nevertheless, the actual events of the conference were more than adequate to distract one from the stifling heat. Following Fletcher, Ben Houchen, the popular Mayor of Tees Valley, and Jake Berry, the Rossendale and Darwen MP and the Northern Research Group’s chair, delivered two pieces setting the scene on the North, although Houchen’s comments came down-the-line from Albania. Clearly Eastern Europe is in vogue with top Tories.

All was as one would expect: stout-hearted references to the smashing of the Red Wall in 2019, healthy statistics about levels of inward investment and employment, and a plea to the Government to take the North and levelling-up seriously before the next election. The first panel, including Bishop Auckland (and Tik Tok’s) Dehenna Davison and GB News’ Michelle Newberry, highlighted the importance of giving Northern youngsters’ local opportunities.

Onto a breakout session on how ‘Net Zero Needn’t Cost You the Earth’. Sara Britcliffe and Jacob Young, MPs for Hyndburn and Redcar respectively, spoke eloquently of how Net Zero can be married to the Government’s levelling-up ambitions in order to make the North as much the home of the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ as it was the first. Blyth Valley’s Ian Levy pointed out how greenery were already said to bring 12,000 jobs to his constituency.

After the buffet lunch – fish goujons and a nice macaron – another breakout session. This was on ‘Connecting the North’ and saw a mixture of panellists from politics and business discuss the ongoing problems of connectivity, both physical and digital, across the North. The claim of Paul Howell, the MP for Tony Blair’s former constituency of Sedgefield, that it was faster for him to get to London than Manchester was rather eye-opening.

This prepared the conference-goers for the feedback session – sorry, ‘Big Ideas Debate’ – where representatives of the various panels informed the audience what had been discussed. Berry then returned to give a rundown of the overall conference, and to highlight the three big policies it had produced: a call for a Northern equivalent of the Barnett Formula to increase spending, devo-max for Metro Mayors, and an end to housing targets in areas with devolution.

This was bookended by a brief interview with Tom Tugendhat, a current leadership aspirant, and the aforementioned chat with Michael Gove, a former one. Both suggested their approval of the conference’s ideas, with Gove joking that what Berry proposes usually becomes Government policy before too long. Nevertheless, he made it clear that the Metro Mayor scheme was one the Government was proud of and hoped to extend.

That Gove continually raised Ben Houchen’s success as a reason for further devolution rather dodged the inconvenient fact that for every Mayor Houchen, Street, or even Johnson that this form of devolution has enabled, there has also been a Burnham, Khan, or Livingstone. Both Gove and the conference appeared unclear on how the mayoral system could be changed to prevent relations between Whitehall and ministers devolving into continual antagonism over money and powers.

Yet this should not detract from the conference’s success. I was continually struck by how levelling-up, rather than being a buzzword, was taken deadly seriously by the attendees. As Berry pointed out, there have been more than 40 government-led initiatives designed to generate growth in the North in the last 40 years. Yet Britain remains deeply centralised and concentrated on London. This must change.

With MPs and businesses as passionate and informed as the ones I met in Doncaster, one would not bet against it. That is especially as successfully upping growth in the North would start to produce the sorts of fiscal headroom the Chancellor and many of his MPs – from across the country- would like to see put into tax cuts. Fortunately, Sunak attended a dinner with the various attendees the night before, so I’m sure he has received the message.

And the Prime Minister? I do not doubt the importance of the war in Ukraine. Even if I believe our strategy is flawed, Johnson’s friendship with President Zelensky is impressive. But upstaging the conference he was supposed to be attending was a poor move a week after a confidence vote. Johnson’s survival relies on keeping MPs on side in the short-term and keeping the Red Wall blue in the long-term. Listening to the conference’s conclusions would be a step towards that, but it would have been better for him if he had done it in person.

The post The Northern Research Group Conference. Fibre-optics and Levelling-Up in Britain’s Las Vegas. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Presenting ConservativeHome’s Spring Conference fringe programme

12 Mar


We are pleased to invite you to join us – in-person or online – for ConservativeHome’s programme of fringe eventsConservativeHome’s programme of fringe events at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th March.

We’ll be welcoming guests including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ben Houchen and Liam FoxJacob Rees-Mogg, Ben Houchen and Liam Fox to the stage for discussions exploring trade, Brexit opportunities, levelling the economy and devolving political power down.

As with our successful Party Conference fringe in Manchester, all of our events will be streamed live and free of charge online for readers who cannot attend the conference in-person.

To view full event details and sign up for email alerts on one or more events, click here.To view full event details and sign up for email alerts on one or more events, click here.

Does England really need more mayors?

4 Feb

On Wednesday, the Government unveiled its Levelling Up white paper, a 332-page document, which aims to address major economic imbalances across the UK. 

One of the ways the Government intends to achieve greater regional parity is by enhancing local leadership throughout the country. “We will extend, deepen and simplify devolution across England”, reads the report, whose authors want every part of England to be entitled to “London style” powers and a mayor.

This idea is not new to the Conservative Party. As Chancellor, George Osborne famously championed a “cities devolution bill”, and encouraged England’s big cities to follow Greater Manchester, in bidding for devolved powers. Since then, he has urged the Government to go further on localism. “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it”, he said in an interview last year for ConservativeHome.

Moreover, the Conservative Party is proud of its record on mayors, seeing Andy Street and Ben Houchen, representing the West Midlands and Tees Valley, respectively, as success stories. There are clearly a number of advantages to having a mayor, namely that they know their area – and can fight for it – much better than those in Whitehall, helping locals feeling connected to government.

Perhaps this is why localism has had the nation’s backing in the past. It was a clear pledge in the Conservatives’ manifesto, which read “We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK… building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors”, and people voted for in huge numbers. We are, of course, not the first country to see the benefits of devolved powers (see Germany, with its 16 federal states).

Even so…. Even with all these benefits, and a democratic mandate, I have a feeling that the mood has changed significantly since 2019, and that the public may – instead – be increasingly sceptical about mayors, and the power of devolution.

Why? Well, something very big happened between the time the manifesto was published and now, which is, of course, the Coronavirus crisis. Among many things, it showed many of the practical problems that can come about the more that a government devolves power. “One nation”, we certainly were not.

At times it felt as though the devolved administrations (Scotland and Wales, in particular) were engaged in a competition of “who cares the most” about Coronavirus. Care, as far as leaders were concerned, could be demonstrated by which of them would lock down their own citizens the longest, or create the most inconvenient set of rules, or address people in the most sombre of tones. 

The result was an incredibly divided UK, with contradictory messaging, depending on one’s postcode, about how to fend off the virus. Never mind that parts of the country were also given different “tiers”, so as to determine how careful they should be about Coronavirus.

The contradictory messaging was not just limited to the devolved nations. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is, to this day, still making announcements about the need for masks on transport, while the Government has scrapped this rule. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, too, famously held a press conference after his “talks” with the Government over Tier 3 restrictions collapsed. Do we really want more of this? A “splintered” Britain in tense negotiations with each other?

Perhaps the Government thinks, with its extension of mayoral powers, that it will get more Houchens and Streets in the future, rather than Burnhams and Khans. But one highly doubts this will be the case, as a result of demographic shifts brought about by the housing crisis. Vast swathes of young people, who are mainly left-leaning, are being priced out of the South East, bringing their politics into new areas. In other words, the Left can look forward to more of a mandate.

One argument for localism is that people, especially the Brexit-backing public, want to “take back control” of their areas, away from bureaucrats in Whitehall (or otherwise). But localism can equally leave people feeling like they have less democratic say. Khan, for example, seems to endlessly introduce anti-car measures (which are hardly going to “level up” workers, should they be delivery drivers), while rarely asking voters for their say.

And, as the public felt about Brussels bureaucrats, some bureaucrats appear to be getting a lot out of the taxpayer, such as Police and Crime Commissioners (paid between £70,000 – £100,000 per year), without much obvious impact. When we have a cost of living crisis, and a pandemic bill to pay, the public may be more in favour of cutting the number of taxpayer-funded roles, rather than going on a mayoral spending spree.

Generally, I tend to think the Government may have already ticked off “levelling up” in many voters’ minds when it decided to move the Treasury to Darlington, and promised huge investment for the North, among other things. Although the Westminster bubble gets terribly excited about white papers, maybe voters are looking for “simple wins”; energy bills coming down, a cut in council tax, or even a pint being a bit more affordable. 

Clearly Levelling Up, as a general strategy, has a huge amount of thought behind it. It shouldn’t be written off, as Lisa Nandy did in the Commons on the day of its release (“is this it?” she asked Gove repeatedly). But the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes about many things. Whether they want multiple face mask rules up and down the country ever again, I’m not convinced.

Places need power if they’re to level up

3 Feb

Do you remember the Third Way?  It was Tony Blair’s attempt to spray gloss a veneer of political philosophy on New Labour’s ruthlessly focused election machine – rejecting a choice between “prosperous and efficient Britain” (Thatcher’s Conservatives) and a “caring and compassionate Britain” (Old Labour).

For a while, the Third Way attracted commentary, praise from Blair groupies, and criticism – before Gordon Brown put the slogan out of its misery.  The era of marginalising the Tories and the Left had come to an end.

Then came the Big Society.  This was David Cameron’s big idea, or should I say Steve Hilton’s?  Again, it was an attempt to give a political project definition, but Hilton was empowered to further the idea, or try to – before the then Prime Minister lost patience with it (and him).

But for a few years, the Big Society was all the rage – at least among  organisations seeking cash, thinkers and doers seeking patronage, civil servants recasting projects, and a mass of others trying to get in on the act.

Levelling up has provoked the same pattern of behaviour, and my sense as an Editor is that no subject since Brexit has attracted more submissions to ConservativeHome (with the exception of Tory MPs offering pieces backing of Net Zero, often because they have a constituency interest in green energy).

Schools, work, skills, productivity, infrastructure, transport, housing, science, procurement, high streets, law and order, elected mayors, health, broadband, sport, parks, culture: nothing human and indeed unhuman is alien to levelling up.

This provokes the criticism that if levelling up is about everything it is thus about nothing – assuming that it’s understood in the first place.  “People find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating,” Rachel Wolf, the co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, wrote on this site.

All the same, the central message of levelling up seems clear enough to me: at heart, it’s about redressing the economic, cultural and social imbalance between the Greater South East and much of the rest of Britain.

If this isn’t One Nation conservatism in post-Brexit guise, I don’t know what is.  The heartland of the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was provincial England, which thereby rejected the status quo – including an economic model heavily reliant on unskilled migration, financial services, low wages, and London plus its hinterland.

Michael Gove said more or less as much in the Commons yesterday.  “While talent is spread equally across the United Kingdom, opportunity is not.”

“We need to tackle and reverse the inequality that is limiting so many horizons and that also harms our economy. The gap between much of the south-east and the rest of the country in productivity, in health outcomes, in wages, in school results and in job opportunities must be closed.”

It’s therefore evident not only what levelling up is but what it isn’t.  Fundamentally, it isn’t focused on prosperity, though this would certainly be a by-product of the project were it to work.

After all, a Government focused simply on prosperity, or at least growth, might well double down on the present economic model, supplemented by tax cuts, a reinvigorated private sector, and deregulation. This seems to me to be precisely what some in the centre-right thinks believe we should do.

“The intention to spread government R&D around the country could damage the success story of the Oxford-Cambridge corridor,” the Institute of Economic Affairs said in its response to the White Paper.

This suggests the nightmare endpoint of a levelling up policy which makes the Greater South East worse off than it otherwise would be while leaving much of the rest of the country not much better off than it is now.  You can bet that what the IEA is saying some Tory MPs with home counties seats will be thinking.

If levelling up isn’t fundamentally about prosperity, it isn’t exactly about people either.  Government could help to upskill the next generation only for it to up sticks and head for the Greater South East, as so many have done before.

No, levelling up is primarily about place (and therefore includes in its ambit those bits of the South East that aren’t well off at all).  In which context, that long list of concerns begins to become explicable, since all help to make a place what it is and can be.

Having said which, some of the core elements of levelling up – better transport, joining up towns and cities and skills – look a lot like George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

Let me leave aside such disparate questions about the White Paper as: how many of the proposals are actually reannouncements?  Are targets for 2030 really meaningful?  What’s the knock on for target seats?  And will Gove now vanish from public view again?

Instead, it’s worth reflecting on the magnitude of the task which the Government has set itself, perhaps as much by accident as anything else.

The gravitational pull of London on the rest of the country is more powerful than that of the capital cities of comparable neighbouring countries. Although it has a great deal of poverty within it, the city of which Boris Johnson was once Mayor is an international hub, the centrepiece of a relatively open economy.

Read accounts of how parts of the country boomed when Neville Chamberlain was Chancellor, with a mass of housing and roads being built in and around London, and you will see how little has changed.

If one element of the White Paper has the capacity to drive change is the localism proposals – cautious though these are now that this Parliament approaches its mid-term.  The best time for radicalism is at the start of a new government and that moment has gone.

But whether the matter to hand is better skills, industrial strategy, apprenticeships, emission reduction, integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, central government is badly placed to do the job

Gove referred yesterday to giving such local Mayors as Ben Houchen, Dan Jarvis and Andy Street more powers, and held out the prospect of creating new mayors “where people want them”.  That may be as much as he wanted to do, or his colleagues would let him get away with.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it,” Osborne said last year in an interview with ConservativeHome.

Without ambition on that scale, along the localist lines of Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan’s The Plan, there will be no irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the provinces, to misquote Tony Benn.  Places need power if they’re to level up.

Jonathan Webb: To get levelling up right, we need to rethink where power lies

21 Jan

Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North.

Before January draws to a close, the Government will have faced the biggest test of its flagship levelling up agenda to date. The highly-anticipated levelling up white paper represents a watershed moment for the Government – a chance for it to deliver a plan worthy of the rhetoric, and meet the promises made to the country in 2019 to raise prosperity and close regional divides. If the white paper is to be a success, it must provide a framework that changes the way this country is governed.

The UK is more centralised than any comparable country. Economic and political power is centred around Westminster and this is a root cause of our deep regional divides. Not only is our centralisation a long-standing problem, it’s also one that is getting worse. New research released this week by IPPR North shows that since 2010 central government employment has increased, while local government has continued to shrink.

More decisions are being made from departments in Whitehall and not by local government. At the same time, increasing amounts of tax revenue are flowing to central government, not local government. In 2017/18, 95p in every £1 paid in tax was taken by Whitehall compared to 65p in every £1 in Germany. This has worsened in the intervening years, rising to 96p in every £1 paid in tax being taken by Whitehall in 2019/20.

This centralisation of resources in Whitehall is problematic because decision-makers in London are too far removed from many of the communities that need to be levelled up. Where power lies matters. The further people are from Westminster, the less likely they are to trust government. While some steps have been taken to disperse civil servants across the country, this doesn’t provide the ambitious rethink of central-local relations needed to shift the dial, nor does it compensate for the fact that local government’s capacity has been diminished.

Creating a new economic campus in Darlington won’t make a difference if it simply results in more civil servants moving North. What the region and other parts of the country need is investment, steered by local leaders who know their communities best. Levelling up cannot be delivered from central government alone.

Fortunately, the building blocks needed to level up are already in place, that is, strong local leadership and ambition. Regional and local leaders, like metro mayor Ben Houchen, are making a difference. Houchen has attracted significant economic investment to Teesside, creating a new economy that prioritises green jobs and industry. All areas should be given the same economic opportunities as Teesside.

And at an even more local level, community groups are proving that they have the determination and understanding needed to tackle big issues and level up from the bottom up. Organisations like the Wigan and Leigh Community Charity are giving people the chance to turn their interest and skills into a social enterprise or community business. With the right support, communities can do incredible and entrepreneurial things for themselves.

Shifting power away from central government and to communities requires a strong local state. The white paper must deliver this by outlining a new ambitious way of governing, that puts communities first. Instead of hoarding power and resources in Whitehall, the government must give these away to local leaders. As a start, it should commit to ensuring that 50 per cent of all capital investment and spending on economic affairs sits at the subnational level. This would shift significant resources to combined and local authorities in England.

At the same time, empowering local government and communities would allow them to work together to create new economic opportunities for people and tackle problems like crime and anti-social behaviour. The more say and involvement that people have over their lives and the bigger

input they have in shaping the places they live, the more likely they are to foster local pride. This pride in place is crucial for strengthening community ties and a sense of belonging.

To make levelling up a success, it also has to be underscored by collaboration, not competition. Competitive pots of funding, like the levelling up fund, creates winners and losers. It isn’t right that Barnsley is the only place in South Yorkshire not to win a levelling-up bid. Their need for investment is just as great as in Doncaster or Sheffield.

A more decentralised country, where political and economic power sits at the regional and local level and not in Whitehall departments, would speak to the scale of change needed to match the levelling up rhetoric. So, when Gove presents his levelling up white paper to the country, a radical vision of, and clear plan for, devolution must be at its heart.

Shifting power to local places and communities could give people the chance to better shape their own lives, restore local pride, and finally address the deep divides that cut across our country. Most importantly, it would fulfil the promises made in 2019 – that a fairer and prosperous economy that works for everyone can be realised.

Join Truss, Gove, Kwarteng, Houchen, Street and many more on the ConservativeHome Fringe

25 Sep

We are proud to present the ConservativeHome programme of fringe events for the 2021 Conservative Party Conference, running from Sunday 3rd October to Tuesday 5th October.

In 28 events across three days, we’re bringing you over 100 speakers, including members of the Cabinet, the Mayors of the West Midlands and the Tees Valley, numerous veterans and rising stars of the Parliamentary Party, and more.

For the first time, the ConservativeHome fringe programme will take place both in-person and online, with free access to view our events on YouTube for those who can’t be at the conference itself in Manchester.

We hope you’ll join us to hear from Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Andy Street, Ben Houchen, Dehenna Davison, Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and many others.

We look forward to seeing you there – in person or online.

Click here to see the full event listings and to sign up for more info, reminders and streaming links.

Guy Opperman: In the North East, Labour’s Red Wall continues to crumble – here’s where we can win next

20 Jun

Guy Opperman is the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, and is MP for Tynedale and Ponteland.

During this year’s local elections, we saw seismic change in the North East of England. Hartlepool fell with a near 7,000 majority to Jill Mortimer. Ben Houchen secured 73 per cent in the Tees Valley. In County Durham, Northumberland and elsewhere, the Labour Party retreated.

I don’t think that is our high watermark. In May 2021, we solidified our 2019 general election successes in Blyth Valley, across County Durham and in Teesside – and we can do better.

It has taken time. When I was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Hexham at the 2010 General Election, it was the only Conservative-held seat in the North East. We gained over 100 seats in the 2010 election across the country, but only one new seat was gained in the North East. In 2015, Anne-Marie Trevelyan took the formerly ‘safe’ Liberal Democrat seat of Berwick, making it three.

However, our electoral success in the North East only started really to change in 2019. We gained seven seats – including Tony Blair’s old seat in Sedgefield. Following our Hartlepool victory, we now have 11 seats altogether.

However, there are opportunities for us to go even further, and to do so, we need real action, and determination over the coming years. Boundary changes may alter some seats, but this is how it presently stacks up.

In Northumberland, we now hold three of the four constituencies, and run the council on our own. As we head towards the next election, Wansbeck – the seat of Ian Lavery, an arch Corbynista – is well within our grasp. At the last election, Lavery clung on: but his majority was cut from over 10,000 to just 800.

In truth, he was lucky to hold the seat. We put most of our effort locally into winning the neighbourhood constituency of Blyth Valley but, in the May local elections, local Labour Councillors saw their majorities tumble. It will be for the new Conservative Council in Northumberland to deliver for local people, attracting major new employers to create jobs – building a new train line which will link Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle upon Tyne, and changing Northumberland for the better.

In County Durham, my southern neighbour Richard Holden has written on in ConservativeHome of the sea change in his constituency. I saw first-hand at the local election some of the amazing new Conservative councillors who are delivering for their communities. Richard will always be rightly famous for defeating Corbyn’s heir apparent, Laura Pidcock. In my view, no Labour seat in County Durham is safe. The remaining seats all have majorities under 6,000. There is a big change happening in Durham.

In Sunderland, Labour hold all three seats with majorities of less than 4,000, and in Sunderland Central (majority 2,964), the Conservatives topped the poll in the local elections.

Many of our recent gains came from the Tees Valley. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Ben Houchen is doing an incredible job in transforming Teesside – from delivering more jobs and investment, to saving the Airport, and more importantly projecting a ‘can do’ enthusiasm that all can see.

Ben’s landslide victory shows we can win in any part of Teesside. Both Stockton North and Middlesbrough now look very winnable. Even in Middlesbrough, a seat once so safe the former Labour MP lived in france most of the time, Ben Houchen won well over 60 per cent of the vote. And if Hartlepool can be won by nearly 7,000, anything is possible with work and a real commitment to bring change for the better.

We are making progress on Tyneside too. In a by-election in North Tyneside caused by the resignation of Kate Osborne, now a Labour MP, a local young campaigner showed local residents exactly what a hardworking local Conservative can achieve – and won, taking a safe Labour seat.

In Gateshead, Blaydon is another area with real potential. It is a seat that neighbours my own, and my sense is that Boris Johnson’s leadership and the Conservative message is resonating on the ground.

However, whilst there are many opportunities for success, we will only make progress in the North East if we continue to deliver the change people want to see. So how do we achieve that?

In 2012, as I recovered from my brain tumour, I did a four-week charity walk from Sheffield to Scotland – through what was then the Red Wall. I met people in pubs, mosques, bed and breakfasts, shops and at community events. I talked to people endlessly to get an understanding of the change people wanted to see.

Most of all, people wanted proper representation, with local champions fighting for better investment in schools and hospitals, improved public transport, and more job opportunities. That is exactly what the Government under Boris Johnson is doing. Key symbols of this that matter: like the relocation of part of the Treasury to Darlington, which will open up a world of opportunities for local young people, and play its part in ending the ‘London Centric’ culture that has existed for far too long.

In my own constituency since 2010 we have rebuilt all four high schools, refurbished a local hospital and invested heavily in our community. That is levelling up in action. By getting on with the job and delivering on the people’s priorities, there is a great future for the North East. The Labour Party is out of ideas and does not represent their heartlands. We must keep working, select candidates early, and make the case for conservatism in action.

Can we win more seats than the 11 we now hold? Yes, we can.

Daniel Hannan: A Levelling Up Fund will not, on its own, turn Sunderland into Singapore. Localism will takes us closer, though.

9 Jun

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

How exactly does levelling up work? The aspiration is unimpeachable and the slogan pithy. But how does a government go about realising it? Imagine that you’re the official in charge of enriching one of our poorer regions. You sit at your desk, you open your laptop. Now what?

Part of the answer has to do with infrastructure. That’s the easy bit, the bit that the PM, with his boyish enthusiasm for bridges, railways and airports, most enjoys. But a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is not, on its own, going to turn Dudley into Dubai or Sunderland into Singapore.

A certain reshuffling of government departments might help at the margins. When, for example, the Department of International Trade moves 500 jobs to Darlington, it slightly boosts the economy of County Durham. But it does so at the expense of other regions, since those jobs are maintained at public expense.

So what can ministers do? How might they stimulate the generation of new wealth rather than simply pushing piles of cash around? The obvious answer is one that, for some reason, is rarely heard these days: more localism.

Let’s stick, for a moment, with Teesside. Labour, in retrospect, made a bad mistake when it held the Hartlepool by-election on the same date as the regional mayoral contest. Ben Houchen, the incumbent Conservative Tees Valley mayor, romped home with an astonishing 72.8 per cent of the vote. Why? Because he is seen as an effective local champion who stopped the airport from closing, is redeveloping the former steel works at Redcar and is turning the region into a freeport.

It is an iron law of politics that, the bigger the unit of government, the less efficient it becomes. Town halls are by no means perfect, but they are far less likely than Whitehall departments to preside over monumental cock-ups involving consultants and computers. So why not extend the model? Why not push more powers out to local people?

In 2008, Douglas Carswell and I co-wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. It set out a comprehensive agenda for the diffusion, democratisation and decentralisation of power.

Some of its ideas were successfully implemented by the Coalition government which took office two years later. A recall mechanism allowed local voters to challenge an unpopular MP. Proposals could be forced onto the Commons agenda by petition (people tend to forget that this is how Brexit first made its way into Parliament). Whips lost some of their patronage powers, and parliamentary committees were elected. MPs’ expenses were reformed.

Other ideas turned out to be less successful. Locally elected sheriffs were watered down until they became Police and Crime Commissioners. I have always disliked that name: it is boring, technocratic and inaccurate (read literally, it suggests that PCCs are responsible for crimes). But, in a depressingly ahistorical spasm, Whitehall decided that sheriff sounded “too American”. Nor were the PCCs given anything like the powers we had proposed. In any event, the reform never caught the public’s imagination. People carry on grumbling about woke coppers without it seeming to occur to anyone that PCCs are there precisely to ensure that the police’s priorities don’t drift too far from everyone else’s.

Our biggest idea, granting English counties and cities the sorts of power that are exercised by Holyrood, wasn’t tried. It never is. Central governments are not usually in the business of devolving power. In almost every democracy, the long-term tendency is the other way – driven, in part, by media cultures which make it almost impossible for a minister to say “this is nothing to do with me – talk to the local council”.

Go back, for a moment, to the idea of freeports or special economic zones. The original example, Shenzhen, was a huge success. It didn’t simply suck activity in from neighbouring provinces. It generated new wealth, because it had real power.

Imagine that our freeports could, say, scrap all taxes on savings and inheritance, or require balanced budgets, or introduce Singapore-style healthcare systems. Then we would get the growth that comes from innovation. New schemes would be piloted and trialled. What worked would spread. Jurisdictional competition would give us something we have never known before in this country – downward pressure on tax rates.

Sadly, though, whatever interest politicians show in localism when they are in opposition tends to evaporate once they assume office. Indeed, it is surprising – and creditable – that David Cameron went as far as he did.

Still, there are real dangers in letting things lie. The epidemic and the lockdowns have placed powers in the hands of the central administration that would have been unthinkable two years’ ago. Closed committees decide whether we can leave the country, enjoy our property or meet our friends. State budgets have grown commensurately. And governments are never in a hurry to return the powers that they had assumed on a supposedly emergency basis.

We left the EU precisely to take back control. Having repatriated power, it would be unforgivable to leave it in the hands of Whitehall functionaries. Instead, we should give local communities the tools to raise themselves. Otherwise, four or five years from now, we might find our levelling up rhetoric thrown back at us in anger.

Tom Spiller: Celebrate our election wins. But to keep winning we need to equip activists with tools that work.

15 May

Tom Spiller is the former President of the Conservative National Convention and chaired the 2017 party conference.

What a fantastic set of results our Party had in the May 2021 elections.

I have no doubt that these historic achievements are only possible because of the efforts of our voluntary activists – some of whom travelled to Hartlepool and Tees Valley from as far afield as Dorset, South London, and Shropshire, in gruelling day trips.

Time to reflect

The road to the next General Election – whenever that may come – is now well and truly open, and our party must put serious thought into both holding the new ground that it won in 2019 and 2021, and maintaining its position in long-held territory, some of which now looks weaker than we would like.

Our first challenge will be defending the late Dame Cheryl Gillan’s seat in Chesham and Amersham. Then we face the challenge of gaining Batley and Spen – a seat which we narrowly won in last week’s local elections.

Some suggest that the political phenomenon of “realignment” is a two-sided coin – but it does not need to be. We can never rest on our laurels and, as a party, we always need to think for the long-term. Therefore, we must carefully analyse the unexpected results in (amongst others) Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Sussex, to see what lessons we can learn.

Ask the activists

Earlier this year I conducted an online survey that asked Conservative associations across the UK what support they needed to get ready for the 2021 elections and – to borrow a well-used phrase – build back better, following the lockdown era. (Click here to watch a short video summarising the results.)

I received just over 580 responses to my survey, which came from every nation of the UK, and every region in England. The answer was resoundingly clear and twofold: unsurprisingly, lockdown had a significant detrimental impact on their resources, and they were hungry for campaign-focused practical training.

Time for training, training, training

As many will know, this year our party intends to open the CCHQ Northern campus in Yorkshire.

This represents a fantastic opportunity to channel resources and support to Blue Wall associations that need them. Indeed, we must do that if we are to maintain our Parliamentary majority, to hold onto our freshly-won councils and PCCs, and to further widen the battlefield. However, this can only be done via a proper collaborative partnership with activists on the ground who have vast experience of their local political terrain. And we must all now insist on this.

I know from personal experience that this approach would be hugely beneficial. Last year I hosted an online webinar for first-time associations chairs, and I can tell you that of the 112 attendees, the majority were from the Midlands and the North.

With a particular focus on digital

Another striking feature of this year’s results, which was also echoed in the survey results, was the critical impact of well-executed digital campaigns – after all, for much of the lockdown era, digital campaigning was one of the few tools available to us. This forced many to both innovate and evaluate the approaches they had been taking to date.

But as my survey showed – in the run up to the short campaign, regardless of geographical location, all associations felt that they need more help with campaigning – and, in particular, digital.

The power of digital campaigning cannot be underestimated. A hardy team of volunteers might be able to leaflet a couple of polling districts in an afternoon – but a well-crafted digital messages could well reach thousands of voters with the click of a button.

The example of Ben Houchen

By now everyone will have heard of Ben Houchen’s fantastic achievement – he won the Tees Valley Mayoral race in the first round by winning 73 per cent of all votes cast. A key feature of Ben’s campaign was a relentless focus on digital campaigning. The content that he created ranged from easily-shareable, unspun endorsement videos sourced from small local businesses (click here to view) and construction workers (click here to view) helped by the projects he has made happen, to more heartfelt rallying cries for Teessiders to pull together to get the economy back on track after Coronavirus (click here to view).

If we are to maintain our position in both newly-won and long-held political territory our party must now engage with associations all over the country (especially those with newly-elected chairs) and with a focus on training, particularly in effective digital campaigning. And once again – this is something that I intend to insist on.

Time for a change in approach

This is something that is based in data. I know what the party activists want because I asked them and they told me. This bottom-up, data-led approach should be the basis for all allocation of the party’s resources. If we are going to win the elections of the future we need to equip our activists with the tools that work.