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.

Amanda Milling: The Boundary Review will strengthen our democracy by ensuring that every vote counts the same

8 Jun

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Our democracy allows eligible voters up and down the country the chance to have their voice heard by voting for a representative they believe will best make decisions on their behalf.

But crucially it gives everyone eligible to vote, 18 and over, an equal vote and an equal say. Or, at least, it should do.

However, the constituency boundaries as they presently stand fail to ensure that a vote counts the same in one area as it does in another, even just a few miles away.

This is because the present constituency boundaries are based on data that is already 20 years old. Without the changes to the boundaries, by the time of the next election this data would be a quarter of a century out of date and by the time the next government conducted a review and implementing boundary change, the information will be more than three decades out of date.

At the moment some constituencies have twice as many electors as others. Bristol, having over 100,000, whist the smallest, Stoke-on-Trent Central – has a little over 55,000. It is also true that after the 2017 election, our party would have won a significantly greater number of seats if constituency sizes were equalised and updated, removing the unfair bias in the outdated system.

There is almost unanimous acknowledgement that the status quo is neither fair, nor sustainable.

The Boundary Review that is being undertaken by the independent and judge-led Boundary Commissions, with extensive public consultation, is looking to reset all of this.

This review isn’t about the party building a power base in any part of the country, nor to make it harder for opposition parties to make gains, but about ensuring that Parliamentary boundaries are equally sized and based on up to date figures.

By making sure we have Parliamentary boundaries which finally take account of the huge population change which has taken place in parts of the country, we are ensuring that each constituent will know that their vote counts the same as their neighbour’s. It also delivers on our promise at the 2019 General Election to strengthen our democracy by ensuring every vote counts the same.

I know that for some this review could bring unexpected change. Representing a seat is a unique privilege, and often a very personal one. I have represented Cannock Chase for six years and still feel pride in the community each time my train from London pulls into the station.

Each of us who are MPs will know like the back of our hands every community hall and summer fête. We will see families in the supermarket who we have supported and we will have listened to campaign groups on whose behalf we have spoken out in the House of Commons.

No one wants to lose any constituent who they have been privileged to represent and who has been part of their community.

MPs are rightly proud, and fiercely defensive of their own patch where they have canvassed doors and worked hard for years, so the thought of change at a local level will raise concerns, even if we can all broadly agree to the concept of the changes.

Equally, for long-standing Conservative associations built on boundaries that have been in place for decades it will require some adjustment. Associations take pride in their area, in their membership, and many still operate active ward associations.

But I am confident that our hardworking and committed association officers have what it takes to adapt — and we are committed to supporting them along the way.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have seen fantastic examples of associations being at the forefront of adapting and improving, working together on events and fundraising. I have joined scores of Zoom quizzes, welcomed colleagues as guest speakers and met hundreds of members and activists at Q&As. And we will continue to adapt.

For some these proposed changes will be challenging and that’s why we will be listening and working with colleagues in Parliament and across the party to hear any of the concerns people may have.

As the consultation period begins on these initial proposals we need to come together to collectively work out how we can make the proposals work.  We will make formal submissions in response to the Boundary Commissions initial proposals. MPs, associations, organisations and individuals will also all be able to make representations during the consultation phases. I have no doubt there will be changes from the initial proposals as additional local concerns and counter proposals are taken into account.

These equal and updated boundaries are sensible and necessary. They are the consequence of a manifesto which was written with fairness and uniting the whole country written into every pledge. They make sure everyone’s vote from Cumbria to Canterbury, Dover to Darlington carries equal weight at a General Election.

The Conservative Party will now collectively engage with the independent Boundary Commissions’ extensive consultation process, to ensure all parts of the United Kingdom are fairly represented in the UK Parliament.

Richard Holden: The Stockton South Test – and four others for Starmer, as the run-in for next week’s elections gathers pace

26 Apr

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Malton Picnic area, Lanchester, Co Durham

Things are hotting up on the Northern Front. “Battleground North East” is anchored in public consciousness this year by the Hartlepool by-election: what should be a safe Labour seat appears less than solid due, frankly, to the sheer uselessness of the current Labour leadership.

But who will win? Well it feels like it’s closer than it should on the ground, and there’s no way on god’s green earth that the Prime Minister would have made multiple visits if there wasn’t at least an outside chance.

But Keir Starmer faces more than just Hartlepool in his Red Wall test in the North East this bumper election year (due to the delays from last year), with the Hartlepool by-election just one of a swath of big battles.

After a year in office, Sir Keir has moved beyond the ‘not Corbyn but unknown’ era, and these elections are his biggest – and realistically only – massive test ahead of the next general election. Is he cutting through? Polls say lots of different things, but in the end it’s election results that you really can’t spin and I’ve outlined a few scenarios

  • Keir on Course = Starmer is well ahead of Corbyn and can look forward to rebuilding in the North. All 2019 Conservative MPs are under threat.
  • So-So Starmer: he makes some progress, but there’s a lot more to do. The Blue Wall will be down to the wire at the next general election ,with CCHQ looking at the most marginal seats (such as Wansbeck) for attack, and a broad based defence.
  • Knightmare: Corbyn performed better than Starmer. Labour heading to be a city-centre only party of student politics. CCHQ will be looking to defend the most marginal Blue Wall seats and looking for gains in places like Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesborough. Labour will be in open warfare.

Starmer’s five big tests

1) Tees Valley Mayoralty

Ben Houchen squeezed in in 2017 on a 21.3 per cent turnout with just 39.5 per cent of votes in the first round (just 481 votes more than Labour), winning in just two of the five boroughs. Literally, fewer than one in ten voters went for Houchen in 2017. All Labour need to do is get their vote to turn out, and they’ll win. If it had been held on the same day as the 2017 general election, Labour would have won easily. This should be a shoe-in for Starmer, but Houchen is fighting hard and has gained local notoriety as a bit of a fighter for Teesside.

  • Keir on Course: Labour gain with 50 per cent of the vote in first round.
  • So-so Starmer: Labour win Tees Valley mayorality.
  • Knightmare: Houchen wins re-election with an increased majority

2) Northumberland County Council.

You think of Holy Island and Hadrian’s Wall. The truth is that 75 per cent of Northumberland’s population is within a ten-miles or so of the border with the really rock solid Labour City of Newcastle. The Council has been No Overall Control, but run by a minority Conservative administration since 2017. If Labour can take it back, they’ll do so by taking seats back in the Blyth/Wansbeck Parliamentary constituencies and piling on votes in towns. Look out for results in South East Ashington, Hartley, and Purdhoe: they are all central to this battle.

  • Keir on Course: Taking back Northumberland with a majority administration
  • So-so Starmer: Labour become the largest party, taking back towns and performing well in South East Northumberland.
  • Knightmare: Tories retain power in NoC Council. If by some miracle the Conservatives gained the council, this would be catastrophic for Starmer, and suggest that under his leadership Labour will do significantly worse than Corbyn.

Top tip – Watch out for the Greens in some seats here. If the radical enviro-socialists perform well in some areas it could help galvanise the Labour left.

3) Hartlepool By-Election.

Held by Labour despite a very high Brexit vote by over 3,500 votes on a sub-60 per cent turnout in 2019. Should be absolutely rock-solid Labour, and Corbyn held it by 8,000 in 2017. The fact that it’s in contention at all is astonishing. Starmer has worked hard to distance himself from his very heavily pro-EU stance, but we’ll see if voters are as quick to forget as he’d like.

  • Keir on course: Labour returned with majority of similar proportions + to Corbyn’s in 2017.
  • So-So Starmer: Labour hold the seat with a majority similar to 2019 on a lower turnout.
  • Knightmare : Labour perform worse than in 2019 or even lose. This shows that the Brexit voters who left Labour in 2019 aren’t returning to Labour en-masse, but are instead going Conservative. This would be a disaster and points to the Tories being able to really push further and deeper in the North.

4) County Durham.

Held by Labour since 1919 and with a good majority of about a dozen in 2017 in the really terrible 2017 council elections for Labour. This is the heartland of the industrial Labour vote. But the Conservatives gained three MPs of the county’s six MPs here in 2019, the more marginal seat of Bishop Auckland, and Sedgefield and North West Durham (my constituency). For the PCVC election, add Darlington to the mix. Traditionally, Labour has always outperformed in the local elections by 10 per cent compared to the general election, so this should be an easy hold of the council with gains possible in places like: Crook (a three seat ward currently one Labour, 2 independent), Newton Aycliffe, and Barnard Castle East (currently two Conservatives, which has been heavily targeted by Labour).

  • Keir on course = Labour hold the PCVC and County Council with an increased majority, taking a number of “Independent”, Liberal Democray and some Conservative seats – including Barnard Castle East.
  • So-So Starmer = Labour hold the Council and PCVC, picking up a few extra seats – especially from the Lib Dems in City of Durham and in North Durham (Chester-Le-Street) from Conservatives and Independents.
  • Knightmare = Labour hold the council by a wafer thing margin or, in the worst case, lose control of the Council for the first time in 102 years, with Conservatives making progress against Labour and Labour- leaning ‘Independents’ in places like: Delves Lane (Consett, NW Durham, currently two Labour), Evenwood (Bishop Auckland, currently one Lab, one Con), and holding seats in North Durham that were gained by small margins in 2017.

5) The “Stockton South Test”.

Stockton South was gained by Corbyn in 2017, but lost in 2019. There are a five Council by-elections this year with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents defending. Labour will be looking to making big gains in these seats (which were last fought on the date of the 2019 General Election) to see it in play for the next general election.

  • Keir on Course: Vote Share looks much better than 2017 from these results with Labour gaining most of these seats.
  • So-so Starmer: Starmer picks up a couple of these seats with vote shares similar to 2017.
  • Knightmare: Labour only gain one seat or none in what amounts to a re-run of the 2019 election showing that Starmer is underperforming Corbyn’s 2017 result.

– – –

Having been on the ground in North West Durham during the last few weeks, it’s clear that Labour are moving heaven and earth locally, with voters now facing a “Labour Versus Conservative” battle in most council seats that had traditionally been more of an open contest.

Having knocked on hundreds of doors, Starmer is rarely mentioned unprompted. When asked “what do you think of the new Labour leader?” – then “Brexit” ,as well as being associated with Corbyn at the last election, are the only things that are mentioned.

He certainly isn’t “cutting through, and where he has made an impact, it certainly isn’t to popular acclaim. One politically switched on (and furious) family who voted Lib Dem at the last general election (formerly Labour because they couldn’t stand Corbyn) that I met in Lanchester Ward this time are now “probably conservatives” after seeing the vaccine programme rollout going well.

Their 22 year old son (who was pro-Remain at the time, but too young to vote, and who is now is glad we’ve left) and works locally said that Starmer’s attacks during the pandemic showed him to be a “typical opportunistic London lawyer happy to cash in on any argument about anything.”

If Starmer is to avoid the “Knightmare” then it will be down to motivated left-wing Labour activists getting out their party’s base in a low turnout set of elections, rather than any enthusiasm for Labour’s leader. And if so, however Starmer’s spinners from Southside present the outcome, they’ll still be shackled to the same problems in a general election as they faced in 2019.

I love my new flat. But I’m also sick of moving. We renters need a Greta Thunberg of the housing crisis.

16 Apr

Last week, I moved into a new flat in London. I love it and feel lucky to be able to rent a place that ticks so many boxes, from its location to its comfortable size. I can’t wait to start my “post lockdown life”.

But as I unpacked, and looked at all the heavy furniture I’d carted up the stairs, along with my huge to-do list of administrative tasks, I confess I also thought “I can’t do this again”. That is, move flat (although I won’t have any choice!).

It’s a feeling that so many people have experienced – and not just the young and youngish (I’m 32) – because their housing situation has no permanence. Life is a series of moves with no end date, along with tens of thousands of pounds spent on rent.

Sometimes renters are having to tolerate terrible conditions. Yesterday, for instance, ITV published an investigation into people living in damp and mould-infested council housing. There’s also the news that an estimated 700,000 renters have been served with “no-fault” eviction notices since the start of the pandemic. These are awful events, yet I have to say that nothing surprises me any more.

Indeed, during my flat hunt I stumbled on some real horrors, which estate agents had insultingly claimed to be fantastic. There was the flat with a shower in the bedroom, and one with the kitchen pretty much next to the bed. Take your pick!

The most common escape from renting is parents who can help with a house deposit. But why should you need Mum and Dad to come to the rescue in “meritocratic” Britain? And what about those who don’t have that option?

The Government needs to wake up and do something about the situation, not least because it has introduced policies that have implications for housing demand, such as scrapping the net migration target.

Similarly, it was the UK’s moral obligation to offer citizenship to up to three million Hong Kong residents. We should welcome them as much as possible. But part of that welcoming process has to include thinking about where they’ll live. I have seen few, if any MPs, discuss how they will accommodate a growing population.

Robert Jenrick, to his credit, has been working hard to get planning applications through for housing – as my colleague Henry Hill has written for ConservativeHome. This is fantastic news, and I have no doubt he realises the seriousness of the problem.

But I also get the sense that many MPs just think “well, it doesn’t affect me, so I’ll think about it later” when they hear another complaint from Generation Rent.

Recently, I watched one MP make a passionate plea in parliament about why we need to protect the green belt. Fair enough, but it would be nice if someone could get as animated about the hundreds of thousands of people nowhere near home ownership. How are people supposed to start a family? Or save? Or cope with taxes going up?

I imagine one reason MPs don’t move on this issue with the same urgency they apply to say, climate change, is because they earn just over £80,000 per year. It takes you out of the most competitive parts of the market, and many also do not live in the South East, where demand is especially high (because so many jobs are there).

Some of the current problems will be fixed by the working from home revolution. It means people can now move out into areas with better housing supply. The Government is also moving the Treasury to Darlington and “levelling up” the North. These are all fantastic steps, as a lot of the issues are to do with an imbalance in supply and demand for properties across the country.

But we seem to have stalled on other matters. There was the Government’s housing algorithm, which was meant to increase the supply of properties. Even if this had been allowed to go ahead, it would have resulted in 300,000-a-year level by the middle of the decade – no way near enough to make Generation Rent “Generation Homeowner” instead.

Another issue, of course, is NIMBYs, who have too much power over housing. Recently locals managed to block a £1 billion Kensington hotel and housing complex. I don’t know the intricacies of why it was stopped, but it’s hardly the first time this has happened. It’s hard not to stereotype these people. Are they the types that sing the praises of free movement under the EU – while stopping any efforts to accommodate a growing population?

I’ve never really wanted to write about or research housing. I have no idea what a good planning policy would be. I’m just someone who thought as a child they would grow up and live in a nice house. I feel lied to in a way, as I expect many other people my age do, when we were told that “hard work pays off” at school. Actually, it just goes towards landlords.

Frankly, no one seems to be taking the issue seriously enough. It’s called a housing “crisis” for a reason. Renters need to channel their “inner Greta Thunberg” to get the issue prioritised. Our futures have been “stolen”, after all, by the inability of policymakers, including Labour, to think about where we’ll all live. A Conservative promise to “Get Housing Done” can’t come soon enough.

The Budget. Sunak’s strong message that operation “level up” is under way.

4 Mar

There were all sorts of striking announcements in Rishi Sunak’s Budget yesterday, from the £5 billion grant scheme to help hospitality businesses in England recover from the pandemic to the less welcome news that the Government will raise the rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent.

The Government will be told it spent too much/ too little; that it shouldn’t have gone for corporations, and so forth. But one thing you cannot accuse it of is forgetting its commitment to “level up” the country, which was a big theme in the Budget.

The Conservatives were elected on this promise – to spread “opportunity across the whole United Kingdom” and move away from being South/ London centric – and Sunak’s speech did not disappoint in this regard.

“If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power”, he said firmly, before announcing that there will be a new economic campus for the Treasury in Darlington. This means that 750 employees will move from the Capital to that area.

In another interesting development, Sunak announced eight freeport locations in England for East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside.

While it quickly became obvious (on Twitter, at least) that some people don’t know what a freeport is, let alone have a view on whether they’re a good idea, many councils have been working hard to put in bids for these.

All five council areas in Tees Valley worked together in developing one for Teesside, and it has paid off. Its freeport will be the largest in the UK, spanning 4,5000 acres (2,550 football pitches).

The freeport is expected to increase investment to Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion and create around 18,000 skilled, good quality jobs within five years. The Government will also be hoping it can boost the chances of Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, to get re-elected at the end of this year.

Speaking about his vision for Teesside, Sunak said: “Now, when I look to the future of Teesside I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon. Vaccines being manufactured. Offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country. All located within a Freeport with the Treasury just down the road and the UK Infrastructure Bank only an hour away” (the bank will be in Leeds).

In another part of the Budget, Sunak singled out Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, where the Government is also increasing public investment.

It is putting £225 million into rail stations and the reopening of old railway lines. Government support will also go towards a major housing and commercial development scheme around the upcoming HS2 Solihull Interachange, along with other regeneration efforts.

Responding to these developments, Street said: “The Chancellor has done exactly what we asked for him, and set out clear and wide-ranging support to help West Midlands businesses and the self-employed through the end of the roadmap and into the recovery stage.”

So you can see that, while covering off lots of areas, yesterday’s Budget sent out a strong political message that the Government can hear people outside Westminster (now literally moving departments to other parts of the country).

The Budget may even have an appeal to Generation Rent throughout the UK, as through trying to correct regional disparities, the Government can also help shift demand for housing, which is overly focussed in the South East.

But overall, it was a show that now the Government’s got “Brexit done”, operation “level up” is well and truly under way.

Ben Houchen: The Budget. On Wednesday, Sunak must hear the voice of the North – and kickstart a new era of job creation.

26 Feb

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

With spirits buoyed by the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of pandemic restrictions, and the light at the end of the Covid tunnel finally in sight, all eyes now turn to the Budget on March 3.

This could be one of the most influential Budgets, both for our nation and for the region I represent, in a generation. Crucial decisions need to be weighed and judged by the Chancellor to ensure that our comeback from Covid is powerful and that the light at the end of that tunnel proves to shine on a better future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the top priority for Rishi Sunak is jobs and rebuilding the economy – an economy battered by the necessary restrictions on lives and livelihoods. I know from talking to local businesses how many are fighting on the edge, and it’s to the Government’s credit that the furlough scheme and other financial support have kept so many businesses alive and people in employment.

The “Red Wall” communities in my area overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in the last election, and it’s essential that the faith they put in him is returned. The Prime Minister promised a new kind of government, free of Brussels blinkers and Whitehall hand-wringing, which would address ordinary people’s concerns.

The best way to prevent low incomes and low opportunities from blighting the lives and hopes of adults and children, especially in the UK’s left-behind communities, is to do all we can to create new, good quality, well-paid jobs, on an unprecedented scale.

However, for a jobs agenda to be effective, it needs to be directed with strategy and precision. This can’t be an illusory statistical employment growth driven by foreign workers on contracts in the south. At the last election, the country was promised better policymaking for towns, villages and rural areas, and a transformative levelling up programme which would see growth, prosperity, and potential finally realised in communities across the nation.

This is the moment for a step-change in that levelling up agenda, to drive a jobs revolution in areas like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Only by marrying the levelling up agenda to the jobs agenda will we ensure that new growth is serious, sustained, and benefits everyone.

There are two key ways in which the Chancellor can kick-start the recovery, levelling up, and the creation of good quality, well-paid jobs in my area. I and my team have done the groundwork, and the question is: will the Government grasp these golden opportunities?

The first, and most essential, step needed is for the Chancellor to give the green light to my plans for the Teesside Freeport. With thousands of acres of developable land, the largest deep-water port on the east coast, a nation-leading focus on delivering net zero technology and clean growth, and a pathway to pioneering innovations to support the whole UK freeport ecosystem, I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain.

There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.

Sunak was an early supporter of freeports himself, so I know that he understands the enormous potential we have here. The Teesside Freeport could create more than 18,000 skilled, good-quality, well paid jobs over the next five years and boost the local economy by £3.2billion. It would also increase inward investment into Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion.

Now the Chancellor needs to have the courage to overrule any official arguing to delay pressing ahead with this game-changing jobs catalyst. As soon as Sunak gives us the green light, I’ll be driving this forward, unleashing the potential of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

The second action I’m looking for from the Chancellor is another where I know he understands the opportunity, but where again he needs to cut down the unimaginative Sir Humphreys within his department.

The Government’s plan to relocate 22,000 senior Whitehall civil servants out of London by 2030 will see 800 civil servants moved from Sunak’s own department to a new northern economic campus, dubbed “Treasury North”.

The vast majority of people don’t live in metropolitan cities, they live in our towns, our villages, in the countryside and on the coast. By moving out of London these civil servants will be able to develop a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities people are confronted with on a daily basis and, ultimately, develop better policy that is anchored in real knowledge gained by living in the communities it will impact the most.

For decades, talented local people in my area, graduates of fantastic northern universities and people who should have played an important part in our communities, have been sucked away by over-centralised bureaucracy. Now this self-perpetuating cycle can be broken. More than 100 local business leaders, both Teesside and Durham Universities, and political leaders from across the political spectrum have backed my proposal to bring Treasury North to Teesside.

It would be tragic if the prospect of opportunity and in-tune government was dissolved into a cluster of London civil servants being flown to Manchester, Leeds, or Newcastle. Such an outcome would fail to deliver better policymaking for towns like Hartlepool or Darlington, villages like Stillington or Skinningrove, or rural areas far and wide, and it would fail to deliver the promised levelling up agenda.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to set a defining roadmap for our economic recovery from Covid. As a northern MP himself, I believe that he will hear the voice of the North and kickstart a new era of job creation. The tools are in his hands. The nation is waiting for Sunak to equip us to get to work and create the jobs of tomorrow.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Peter Gibson: Set the high street free

2 Jul

Peter Gibson is the MP for Darlington

Nobody can doubt the scale of the challenge facing our high streets and town centres as we look to rebuild our economy following this pandemic.

As many towns bid against one another looking for funds from the ambitious Future High Street Fund, my patch of Darlington included, it is necessary to acknowledge that fundamentally what our town centres lack is people.

The bustling high street of yesteryear, stacked with BHS and Woolworths, will never exist again. We have generations of decisions to thank for that: out-of-town shopping, pedestrianisation making access and collection ever more difficult, and local authority car parking charges, to name just a few. Buttressed by shifts in lifestyles and technology, these changes have led us to a world in which every conceivable item can be purchased online.

Our town centres are firmly rooted in the idea of the marketplace, around which local economies have grown. Yet you no longer need to buy your bread from the baker or your meat from the butcher. Now the supermarket will deliver it. You don’t even need to drive into town because the inner ring-road circumnavigates it.

Planning in more recent times has either been the guardian or, more often, the be-devilment of the beating heart of our town centre. Our current restrictions are not fit for purpose and are damaging the very essence of our communities.

The classification of property into use-classes – tablets of stone that allow town halls up and down the land to tell us what we can and cannot do within our property – are the embodiment of this red tape, blocking the renewal of our high streets. They prevent vacant commercial property from being reclassified as residential property. Our enterprises need flexibility and adaptability in order to innovate and grow. As Conservatives, we should do all we can to unlock that innovation and growth.

At a time where we are seeing more and more vacant commercial properties in town centres, and with speculation rife that in a post-COVID world many more will be working remotely, this means red tape has been getting in the way of an enormous opportunity to build homes.

This is not only bad for city-dwellers, who lose out from housing shortages and get priced out of the market by a lack of supply, but also a missed opportunity for the economy, which could benefit from a low-cost way of mobilising private capital to improve macro-productivity.

Even before this pandemic truly struck our economy, we knew that swathes of our retail landscape were surplus to requirements. In March, figures showed a vacancy rate of 12.2%. And though the Government has provided unprecedented levels of support to our high street businesses – no business rates this year, the furlough scheme, and small business cash grants, to name just a few measures – we know that vacancy rates, sadly, will rise significantly over the next few months as these schemes are unwound and some businesses never return.

Many towns’ arterial roads that were filled with houses that have become shops and offices now see vacant spaces opening up, leaving gaps and sapping the spirit of the town centre. We need to enable those properties to more easily revert to residential use, and as the need for commercial and retail space in the centre contracts we need to ensure that a diverse range of people move in. Not just students, not just starter homes, but homes suitable for our elderly who can easily walk into town, homes suitable for our disabled people enabling them to access services directly, and homes suitable for growing families with children.

While businesses will always rise and fall, our national ‘animal spirit’ will always endure. This is why the planning reforms announced by the Prime Minister this week are so welcome. By removing the red tape around the use of property and brownfield land, we are giving high streets and town centres a chance to be reborn – as a place to live, take your kids, meet your friends, or whatever local people – rather than planners – want.