Ben Houchen: Unleash the free market to deliver on levelling-up

7 Feb

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

The release of the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper on Wednesday was a very welcome change from Westminster gossip, with serious policy issues leading the news, and the government getting on with the job of delivering for the British people. There is no shortage of serious thinking behind the white paper, and much to be positive about in it.

When Michael Gove was appointed as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, one of his first acts was a visit to Teesside. I took him to see Teesworks, the transformational project that is breathing new life into the former Redcar steelworks and the heart of the Teesside Freeport. While he was on the site I spoke to him at length and in detail about securing jobs, private investment, and growth in my region, and the lessons that could be learnt from Teesside’s experience. Michael has certainly listened, and the strategic direction the white paper outlines has the right priorities – giving back control to local people, ensuring that there is strong local leadership, enabling people to restore local pride, and hugely raising ambitions for communities abandoned to decline.

I’ve always said delivering levelling up was not going to be achieved in just a few years, and the White Paper has the breadth and depth of vision necessary to guide Government policy for years to come. It’s going to be an invaluable blueprint for both this and future governments, as its ideas work through the different departments of state. But whilst the White Paper is strong on getting the shape of government intervention right, there is a lack of clarity when it comes to enabling the real engine of levelling up to take off. Investing in local priorities and fixing skewed research and development funding formulae is important, but what will really restore pride to left-behind areas and create the new opportunities we all want to see is private initiative. The paper’s relative silence on this essential part of the equation is a missed opportunity. A free market focus could have supercharged the White Paper.

Nevertheless, the free market is going to be crucial to the next stage of levelling up: delivery. At the next election, I believe the government will stand or fall on whether people can see visible progress on levelling up. People need to see cranes on the skyline, spades in the ground, and steel going up, as key infrastructure projects are delivered. But as Conservatives, we know that it’s not always about throwing taxpayers’ money around. History shows the State, with its default mindset diktat handed down from upon high, simply can’t do the right things quickly enough. Plans to extend the kind of devolved powers I have to new elected Mayors need to be accelerated. The invention and skill that the Prime Minister has rightly said exists in every part of our country needs to be unleashed. And we need to convince private investors to commit with confidence to places with a proud past and huge potential but a recent history of reliance on state-administered sticking plasters. How do we achieve this?

Firstly, I’d aim for the low-hanging fruit of business rates. Tax devolution may not sound exciting. But I believe devolution of business rates could be as revolutionary as Margaret Thatcher’s “big bang” reforms to the City of London in 1986. If I, as Mayor, had control of business rates, I’d slash business rates across the board, with a special focus on capital and energy intensive businesses which are a huge strategic priority for Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Overnight this would stimulate massive private sector investment in strategic industries that are critical for UK PLC. This in turn would lead to an explosion of job creation, put more money in people’s pockets, and restore local pride. Different areas could take different approaches – for example, London could focus on its world-class financial services sector. The result would be a spectacular renaissance and an economic boom not seen for generations.

Getting competition into local government would not only get some much-needed downward pressure applied to tax on job-creating British businesses – it would stimulate over-cautious local authorities to shift from micro-management of decline to big thinking about success – something far too few councils do. Cleverly deployed, it could be a crucial tool in incentivising a net zero recovery, putting the UK at the global forefront of net zero technology, securing first-mover advantages in jobs and technology, and showing that green goals are better achieved through the market than through socialist levies.

The reason I’m so keen that the Government moves boldly on hydrogen technology is because we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a global centre for a huge growth market. No great opportunity is completely risk-free, but it’s a moment we need to seize or we could be outstripped even by the usually sluggish EU. The hydrogen contracts for different business models need to be released; heating and transport projects need to be accelerated; and we need to incentivise private investment in the sector on a big and immediate scale, or we are going to come late to a German party.

Treasury officials, lacking confidence in the free market and British enterprise, fret that fiscal responsibility requires regulations and taxes – especially business rates – to stay equally high in all fields and across the country. But the example of Corporation Tax is instructive. Gordon Brown left behind a Corporation Tax rate of 28 per cent. Despite howls from the opposition parties, Conservative chancellors have cut this down to 19 per cent. That led to the creation of huge numbers of new jobs and new businesses, whilst the actual tax yield to the Treasury from Corporation Tax grew. Singapore has pursued the same strategy with much more conviction, and their ten per cent Corporation Tax cuts and other business incentives have been rewarded with six per cent growth. If we’re to overcome the cost of living crisis, this is the kind of growth we too should be reaching for.

We need every part of Britain to be firing on all cylinders if we are to win the global competition for investment. Instead, Treasury fixation on the short-term is keeping a tight central rein on growth. The Treasury plans to let the government’s most pro-growth policy, Rishi’s super-deduction, lapse next year. If the super-deduction is indeed allowed to lapse, CPS and Tax Foundation research shows Britain will fall to about 31st in global competitiveness league tables. This simply isn’t good enough. Brexit gives us the opportunity to make bold business incentives happen without needing EU say-so. We need to take that opportunity and make bold moves now.

Levelling up requires not bigger, but smarter government, smarter politics, and smarter tax. The White Paper rightly prioritises the open publication of new levels of data so that the Government can be held to account on delivery. I’m willing to be judged on delivery, and with the strategy set in the White Paper, the time to deliver jobs, investment, and growth is now. Giving Combined Authorities genuinely extensive powers to set Business Rates is only one of many actions we need to take. But all paths to delivering levelling up need Whitehall officials to be led by Conservative ministers to embrace lower taxes, lower regulation, and the power of private enterprise.

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.

Stewart Jackson: A reshuffle that moved some of the Prime Minister’s critics into the Cabinet would be prudent

10 Jan

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The precipitous recent decline in the poll ratings of the Prime Minister and predictions of electoral doom are indicative of two enduring phenomena: that Boris Johnson is unique and, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, dominates the political landscape.

Conservative MPs will largely sink or swim as a result of the electorate’s judgement of him. But there’s nothing new in these setbacks, and many Conservatives have little institutional memory, and perhaps little understanding, of the vicissitudes of modern politics.

The bien pensant liberal media classes and their cheerleaders such as Matthew Parris are loathe to concede it, but the Prime Minister is a historically significant figure. He not only led the movement (or at least the last throes of it) which resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union but, more fundamentally, built a mighty vote-winning electoral coalition founded on culture and community rather than class and capital.

What Johnson has had in spades is not just celebrity and chutzpah, but luck: inheriting a safe Commons seat in 2001 when the Tories had detoxifying work in progress; coming to power in London during a Conservative renaissance in the capital when the voters were sick of Ken Livingstone, and quitting the Cabinet after the Chequers plan in 2018 – to usurp the pitiful May interregnum and break the Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister’s greatest weakness is that he loves to be loved but, ironically, the more hysterical and cacophonous the shrieks of his critics, the stronger he becomes politically. To many Tory voters, all the usual suspects hate the Prime Minister – not least bcause they believe that he was and should be one of them.

However, he lacks a Praetorian Guard in Parliament who will walk through fire for him (even John Major had one) and the relationship that many Tory MPs have with the First Lord of the Treasury is cynical and transactional.

Covid restrictions, tax rises, self-inflicted wounds such as the Paterson affair, ethical issues, the fall out from reshuffles and recurring problems of miscommunication between Number Ten and Conservative MPs have all soured the glad confident morning of December 2019.

Johnson still has the power to forgive – and a reshuffle that pulled some hitherto irreconcilables and malcontents back into the tent would be prudent politics.

My erstwhile colleague at Crosby Textor and electoral wunderkind, Isaac Levido, has compared the post Covid scenario as like when the tide is at its lowest: all the Prime Minister’s problems lie like broken boats on the harbour floor.

Brexit and future relations with the EU, the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices, social care and the demographic timebomb, delivering the levelling up agenda and regional and national infrastructure, the busted local government funding and planning systems respectively, fighting the “Blob” in the delivery and reform of publc services and the endemic problem of uncontrolled immigration – all are moving up the list of voter salience.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1979, Thatcher wrestled with an inflation rate of 13 per cent and interest rates of 17 per cent. Even John Major, barely a year before besting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 General Election struggled with a jobless figure in the millions, 10 per cent interest rates and annual price rises of seven per cent – none of which Johnson will experience next year or, most likely, before the next general election.

The last two months will have actually helped Johnson and his most devoted supporters to shake free the contagion of complacency and “BoJo is teflon” exceptionalism: the Cabinet revolt against further Covid restrictions was  timely and good for efficient government. It means that in future, controversial policies are likely to be more routinely challenged, and will be improved upon by robust critique.  The Iraq War showed that Cabinet government by fan club very rarely ends well.

The Prime Minister’s most urgent strategic challenge is the same as that for Thatcher, Blair, Major and David Cameron – namely, how to reinvent his Government. For Brown and May – similar personalities – it was already too late. But such reworking was done in 1986 after Westland and in 1991 before the ERM catastrophe.

Most recently, David Cameron offers hope and inspiration. (Yes, I did write that sentence!) His clever decision to back a Private Members’ Bill to give effect to an EU Referendum in 2014 soothed the Eurosceptic fever in the Commons, and allowed the Conservatives to focus on their retail offering to voters at the 2015 election.

What also helped teamwork and discipline then was a narrow but consistent poll lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, and the prospect of a re-energised Opposition and a possible SNP-Labour colation government.

Today, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is off life support, is winning the right to debate, is more credible than during the last six years, and sp tighter polls will concentrate the minds of fractious Conservative MPs. For all that, though, Labour is miles from looking like a government in waiting and, frankly, if Wes Streeting is the answer, it’s a very silly question.

Specifically, the Government must rebuild its demoralised electoral coalition, keep the Right broadly united and it develop a positive case for the continuance of a Conservative Government – a compelling narrative and a legacy.

Support amongst Leave voters has slumped from 72 per cent to 56 per cent during the last six months, and Red Wall voters are disilusioned and impatient.

Currently, many Tory supporters in the South and South West, ABs and C1s who voted Remain, but were terrified of a Corbyn government, are angry about tax rises, general incompetence, planning, Tory Sleaze 2.0 (sic) and are shopping around for a protest vote.

Ironically, Theresa May’s entrance speech on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in July 2016 provides the Prime Minister’s own template for rejuvenation.

There’s more than enough time to deliver on a commitment to localism – a repeat of the successes in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Michael Gove has the acumen and strategic nous to understand that building enough houses for young voters is now existential for the Conservative Party – after all, you can’t create capitalists who don’t and can’t own capital. And deregulation, tax cuts and demonstrable Brexit wins, such as freeports, must be front and centre in the Conservative story.

The voters don’t care for Singapore on the Thames, but they generally favour traditional Tory values.The Cabinet, for all the media criticism, still has condident and pesuasive voices, such as Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Ben Wallace.

Johnson still has aces to play: by historic standards, he’s still polling reasonably well, even if the May local elections will be brutal. And as public opinion in the wake of the Colston statue trial has shown, the War on Woke energises his base, and is a cultural wedge issue which drives many newer Conservative voters.

But such action will be hobbled without firm and radical action on immigration.Similarly, “barnacles must be scraped off the boat” – such as socially liberal tokenism in new legislation, tax rises to fund green initiatives and appointing political opponents to public bodies.

It surely isn’t too much to ask for a Conservative Government to be, well, fundamentally Conservative? Competent, compassionate and communitarian. Johnson has limited time to deliver but at least he now knows and comprehends more than ever, as a classical scholar, the immortal words of the Roman slave to his Emperor: “respice post te, mortalem esse memento” – “look around you, remember you are mortal.”

Ben Houchen: Achieving hydrogen heat for the nation is worth investing in – as Teesside can prove

27 Jul

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

As we approach COP26, the Government has been firm in its commitment to lead the world in decarbonising our economy and to see Britain become a pioneer in a new green industrial revolution. From powering Britain’s chemical industry to keeping our homes warm, these laudable aspirations mean big challenges on the ground.

As the Tees Valley Mayor, I see all around the amazing technological advances we are making which will make this possible, but I’m also acutely aware of how pressed many hard-working families already are by rising energy prices.

There is increasing anxiety about the cost of Net Zero. As Daniel Hannan has also emphasised on this website, the climate challenge needs to be tackled not with millenarian self-indulgence but with practical, level-headed, down-to-earth solutions.

Though some on the Left may think otherwise, the Treasury’s coffers are not bottomless. Jacob Young, Redcar’s MP, was right to recently warn on ConservativeHome that green policies needed to be affordable for ordinary people, and that’s true whether the burden falls on people through taxation or through rising living costs.

In Teesside, there’s nothing we do better than practical solutions. For years, Labour politicians have instead tried to drag us down the road of griping self-indulgently in the hope of a few more handouts, without offering real answers. Since my election in 2017 I’ve worked hard to reverse this and unleash the true spirit of Teesside.

Now, Teesside is tackling challenges and seizing the day, from manufacturing vaccines in Billingham to being the first part of the country to welcome e-scooter trials, bringing many people a flexible, affordable, and Covid-regulation compliant commuting option. And I believe our biggest contributions on the horizon are going to be the ones which will make Net Zero affordable and even profitable for Britain.

The Government is soon going to publish its Heat and Buildings Strategy, which will attract a lot of attention – rightly so, because it will lay out the Government’s approach to affordably achieving significant efficiencies in heating our homes. Less widely anticipated are the detailed guidelines for the Government’s hydrogen village trials, but these will be essential in actually delivering on more widely-quoted aspirates for homes powered through green technology.

Customer choice is essential in domestic energy, as in most areas of life. However, many fashionable options for designer homes won’t work for many ordinary people. In terraced streets or in blocks of flats, electric heat pumps are a non-starter. Many electric technologies may struggle to give elderly people the quick and powerful heating which is needed to keep people not just comfortable but safe in much of the North in winter. In many cases, only hydrogen can effectively overcome the difficulties. Making hydrogen work as a real alternative for natural gas is imperative.

There have been a variety of tests of hydrogen technology in homes, but these have been limited to proving that hydrogen is fundamentally safe, and that it could run safely through its own new and expensive pipe network. What we now need to prove is that the existing network can be very affordably repurposed to safely deliver gas to all the different kinds of homes people want to continue to live in, with minimal disruption and reversible technology.

Scientists and engineers in my region are working on some amazing plans to deliver this. Wedded to assumptions about electric heating developed in Whitehall many years ago and long since overtaken by cutting-edge research, some in government still work on the basis that hydrogen must be outlandishly expensive because of a need to replace all the gas pipes in the country. In Teesside, we can prove that these fears are unfounded and that hydrogen really can be the solution we all need.

The time for tinkering trials has come to an end. Achieving hydrogen heat for the nation is worth investing in, and I am urging the Government to ensure that we secure the right level of participation in these trials by subsidising participants’ bills.

We can’t test the affordability of this technology if ordinary people are put off from joining the trial by the risk of costs for new hobs, potential short-term heating bill increases, and reversing any trial technology if it proves necessary. We also need to be looking to scale up the planned hydrogen village to a hydrogen town at a much faster pace than over-cautious bureaucrats are planning.

In a sense, hydrogen heating is a back to the future technology – Britain’s houses were heated by hydrogen until North Sea gas was found and took over the network within many of our lifetimes. To that extent, we are looking at tried and tested British technology which just needs to be honed to ensure it’s safer than ever and genuinely affordable for ordinary people today.

But the development of blue hydrogen and green hydrogen is what is putting hydrogen back on the energy map. Making green energy for homes affordable isn’t just about pipes and boilers but about the supply of hydrogen. Again, my part of the country has the answers we need.

Teesside already produces more than half of the UK’s hydrogen. The pioneering Carbon Capture technology of Net Zero Teesside will create the clean blue hydrogen which ought to be a big part of the Government’s plans to affordably bridge our energy transition – blue hydrogen needs to be incorporated in as many trials as possible and ministers make sure that it is consistently backed.

We’re also doing outstanding research into green hydrogen, whose production can become increasingly affordable. Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool are key to making hydrogen supply affordable. Achieving critical mass in this technology is also crucial to securing the future of Britain’s chemical industry, so much of which is based in my region.

What is even more exciting is that, by leading the way in hydrogen technology, Britain can set itself up to export our green technological revolution to the world, just as we exported the technology of the first industrial revolution across the Earth.

This kind of technology can be a significant part of Global Britain’s international trade offering, securing prosperity and a better quality of life for our people. But to position ourselves to achieve this, first we have to get the basics right. Little is more basically essential than securing an affordable power supply for British homes, and I will do all I can to help our government to make the future-proofed choices and the investments that can achieve this.

Laura Sandys: The six key shifts we need for a fairer society and greener future

15 Jul

Laura Sandys is a former Conservative MP, co-chair of the cross-party IPPR Environmental Justice Commission and chair of both the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce and the Food Foundation.

The UK has been at the forefront of most recent industrial and economic system changes from the spinning jenny through railways to a very vibrant tech sector. In climate policies under all governments we have continued this tradition of leading on the challenges and opportunities for a climate-safe and prosperous future. 

However, in the past, we have gone about “transforming” our economies without considering the long-term impacts and sustained damage for parts of our country – geographically, socially and to communities. For climate change transformation we can and must do things differently – and deliver on other goals also crucial to the success of the Conservative government. 

The IPPR Environmental Justice Commission, of which I am co-chair, today sets out a plan for a transition to a fairer, greener economy, that is full of opportunity – combining climate action and nature regeneration with fairness and levelling up – and in many instances “pushing on”. 

There are plenty of opportunities at the heart of the new climate-safe, nature-rich, future-fit economy and society that we propose. By moving fast we will mitigate some of the cost of extreme climate change that will impact our economy and community, with profound implications for life as we know it.

In addition, the economic gains should place the UK at the forefront of new business sectors, with SMEs delivering local and then exported technologies, new jobs across the country in future-facing companies and roles that will be sustainable for decades. Meanwhile, healthier diets, better air, clean travel, lower energy bills and greater self generation of energy will deliver tangible dividends to ordinary families.

However we all recognise that to transition to a more ecologically-balanced tomorrow, investment will be required; and, as with all change, there will be winners and losers. 

This challenge of maximising opportunities while supporting those most affected is the focus of our report. This cannot be a transformation that makes life worse for those already “left behind” – or create a new generation of discarded communities. Let us be very aware that citizens have a veto on Net Zero, so that “how” we implement the necessary measures is as important as “what” we develop.

So we asked communities that might lose out how to ensure we create the right “bridges” to where we all need to be tomorrow. We asked the people in Thurrock, with its large shipping and haulage economy; South Wales, dominated by intensive energy sectors and disconnected rural communities; Tees Valley and County Durham, with chemicals and gas industries; and Aberdeen, with its economy rooted in North Sea oil and gas: what did they think we need to do?  

As always, local people who see policy in terms of real life impacts not Whitehall spreadsheets had much to tell us. They were clear we needed to go faster and deeper – surprising, as their communities are among those most invested in the current fossil fuel economy.   

Their views are reflected in this report, and they proposed six key shifts in policy making. 

First, from a mindset of doom and gloom to one of optimism and opportunities. The benefits of ambitious action are substantial, from the creation of decent jobs to lower energy bills and public health benefits, to burgeoning wildlife and a healthier planet.  

The commission proposes a “people’s dividend”: direct green dividend payments to the public from revenue raised from carbon pricing. A similar scheme redirecting carbon taxation has been successful in Canada and elsewhere, building greater acceptance of carbon measures.

Second, fairness must be a foundation not an afterthought. The impact of the French “gilets jaunes” shows why delivering the transition fairly is crucial to securing it, by building enduring public support.

We have the capacity to mitigate changes and create bridges for those impacted. The commission proposes a “fairness lock” on every climate policy, to ensure this principle is at the heart of everything we do. 

Third, we heard clearly that the public must be part of this transition, not simply have it “done to” them. This matters most now we’re moving beyond decarbonising our energy grid – largely unnoticed by many – to a changes that will touch on people’s everyday lives. This stage will affect how we heat our homes and get around, what we eat and, for many, the jobs we do.

The commission proposes a people-first approach, providing “one stop shops” for support, information and guidance. We also call for the the public to have a clear role in creating plans – including through permanent, national and local citizens’ climate and nature assemblies.

Fourth, move away from “Whitehall knows best”, recognising that one size does not fit all. Our jurors proposed smart solutions, specific to their areas. Policies must be designed to be locally tailored, with government passing powers and money down to local authorities and communities, to achieve better and fairer outcomes. This will deliver more ambition, policy innovation and popular support.

Fifth, we need a coordinated whole-economy and all-society approach rejecting today’s silos. Government must work closely with great British businesses large and small, trade unions and workers, and civil society. New, overarching net-zero and nature-compliant rules must shape government spending and policy decisions – supported through tax incentives, small business loans and regulation.

Sixth, conserving nature has always been at the heart of my Conservatism. But even I was struck by the value our jurors placed on this as they proposed that nature be put on the same footing as climate.

We call for the creation of a Nature Recovery Committee, with legally binding targets for the environment, and a new National Nature Service – that some jurors suggested be called “The Attenborough Service”.

Our report has involved massive effort by many people, but that’s what is needed to deliver the huge systemic and societal change we need. An exciting change, an essential path but one that can deliver both deeper fairness and tackle the biggest challenges of our time – the climate crisis, and the need for restoration of our nature.

Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

Richard Holden: Knightmare on Starmer Street. Labour loses control of Durham – held by the party for a century.

10 May

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Louisa Centre, Stanley, County Durham

At the count in Stanley at 3am on Friday morning after the verification checks on the ballot papers, I realised that I was witnessing the latest stage of the fundamental shift in British politics.

The communities that are not merely the heartlands but the birthplace of the Labour Party are decisively turning their backs on the party which turned its backs on them.

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Keir Starmer and Labour’s five tests from this set of elections in the North East of England. To be fair to the Labour leader, these results cannot all be laid at his door – they have a much longer-term gestation.

However, the man who many thought would be Labour’s knight in shining armour has delivered results even worse than the outlier, “knightmare” scenarios that I suggested a fortnight ago.

Not only did the Conservatives remain the largest party in Northumberland, but they took overall control and, in doing so, took Hartley ward – and kicked out the Labour group leader on Northumberland County Council.

Sir Keir didn’t just fail my Stockton South test (remember: Stockton South was won by Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 general election), but the excellent campaigning of Stockton South’s MP, Matt Vickers, with together with Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, saw the Conservatives not just retain the Stockton South council seats that they’d held, but take all the seats that were up for election, including from Liberal Dems and independents.

Paul Williams, the former Labour MP for Stockton South, handpicked and put on a shortlist of one by Labour HQ, delivered a catstrophic result for Labour in Hartlepool. To lose the seat at this stage in the electoral cycle by that much would have previously been thought impossible, but it’s happened.

With the Conservatives gaining over 50 per cent of the vote in the by-election, and Labour finishing a poor second, it’s clear that, in terms of parliamentary seats, CCHQ now needs to be targeting the North East of England much more broadly for the next election, including such seats as: City of Durham, North Durham, all the Sunderland seats, Blaydon – and even perhaps Gateshead and Easington.

Houchen’s utterly overwhelming victory in the Tees Valley, gaining almost three quarters of the votes on the first round, is the strongest symbol of continued Conservative advance in the North of England. The Conservative gain of the Police Commissioner post in Cleveland is further proof of this. Particularly when the vote from Middlesbrough, widely believed still to be rock solid for Labour in Teesside, came out five to three in the Conservative’s favour.

To outsiders, the loss of Durham County Council by Labour to No Overall Control may not seem quite as totemic as some of the other results. But if anything it’s more so.

The Conservatives increased their number of seats by 14, taking them from the fifth largest group (there are two independent groups) to the position of second largest party behind Labour – in one fell swoop.

Durham is where the Labour Party first gained a county council in 1919 and they have held it ever since. The results overall for the Conservatives are really, really good – particularly in my constituency in North West Durham and in my good friend Dehenna Davison’s constituency in Bishop Auckland.

Scratch the surface, and the results are more impressive still. In North West Durham, we’re now second almost everywhere we didn’t win, from what were often poor third places just four years ago. The increasing vote and vote share was at least 100 per cent, and in some cases, such as in Consett North and in Consett South, the number of Conservative votes went up almost four times.

Even in Weardale, where Conservatives were challenging two long-established independent councillors, we jumped from third place to second place, and came within 85 votes of taking one of them out.

In Woodhouse Grove, in the Bishop Auckland constituency, Conservatives gained two new councillors, and only missed out by nine votes in the working class town of Willington in North West Durham. It’s quite clear that, from this incredible baseline, Conservatives can now make further progress both locally and at the next general election.

These campaigns really came down to incredibly hard graft on the ground. It’s clear that CCHQ needs to look at how we can really capitalise on this with extra resources in the coming months and years.

The results in the North East are not unique. To see Rotherham go from zero to 20 Conservative councillors is mindblowing, as are the exceptional gains in Hyndburn in Lancashire, where the Conservatives held the county council with an increased majority.

But this succes is not just in the North. The gains in Harlow, Dudley, Southampton and elsewhere by the Conservatives show an incredible national picture.

While these results are absolutely stunning, often with significantly increased turnouts, it’s clear that the future of these areas as key battlegrounds will require the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to deliver on levelling up to not only be delivered on in the long-term, but also to show that progress is being made within the next year-to-18 months too.

In some areas of the country, the Conservatives haven’t performed quite as well. Downing Street and CCHQ need to find out why this has ocurred, and learn the lessons not only from the great successes, but also from the places where we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

What’s clear from politics is that nothing ever stays the same. Who’d have thought that the narrow victory in the Teeside matoralty in 2017 following Brexit would have not only been the catalyst for a shift in voting, but a shift in poltical culture in the North East? People are no longer willing to accept either MPs or local authority leaders who see their position as a sinicure. Delivery is what counts.

We Conservatives are in government, and have the abilty to really make that happen. If we do so, our political prospects in these areas will just get better and better.

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. A radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre.

6 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Like a wild schoolyard football game, it will be a case of everyone’s eyes on the ball, with their legs enthusiastically following, as we throw our attention into the joyful pile-on of local and devolved election results.

We should certainly enjoy the spectacle of postponed local democracy restored, while voters in their millions flock to polling booths across England to vote in various district, county, unitary, London mayoral and regional mayoral combined authority elections.

But were we to zoom out and survey the whole frame, we’d see a tangled skein of pitches with different games being played out on fields of various sizes, to somewhat different sets of rules.

This is because, for many parts of England, a devolution destiny remains unfixed. This means, in certain cases, it remains doubtful whether there will be repeat polling business four years hence. The baked-in assumption is that in order to secure prized strategic devolution deals, parts of the country will submit themselves to the Whitehall meatgrinder of reorganisation.

The white paper and the problem of “place”

Today Localis has issued a place-based analysis of “Building Back Better” in a report entitled A Plan for Local Growth. The central thrust of our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions the efficacy of driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state. Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and “levelling up” will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

However, the problem seemingly is that the definition of “place” can mean literally anything across separate Whitehall departments operating in the same place. This is often to the bewilderment of authorities seeking inward investment and businesses seeking to survive and thrive beyond Brexit and Covid.

This Whitehall disconnect also applies to public services. Anything from dedicated schools grant, migration to criminal justice reform can see individual departments taking on bit parts – research, funding, delivery. Perhaps whether the ambit of the Levelling Up White Paper can solve the perennial problem of un-joined-up government is a moot point. But a way is needed to integrate disparate cross-departmental central government agendas so that there is actual early proof these connect at the level of place, work in practice and inspire confidence to move onwards at speed.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue.

On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise. The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

So it is a hopeful sign that O’Brien has been set the task of pulling together the disparate threads of the levelling up agenda into a forthcoming white paper, resurrecting a cause deflated by last autumn’s failure to launch the English Devolution and Economic Recovery White Paper amid the sudden ministerial departure of Simon Clarke.

The challenge demands a policy mind as sharp and political senses as keen as O’Brien possesses. The levelling up agenda currently risks a fate worse than “Big Society” – as a potentially hugely transformative agenda with popular appeal that dies from lack of rootedness in local daily life and concrete, plainly visible outcomes.

Joining the dots on levelling up

Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other. There’s a fancy term from classical rhetoric for the occasion, “hendiadys” or literally “one through two”. In common parlance, think of “bread and butter” or “fish and chips” and try imagining in your mind one of these essential elements without the thought of the other arising.

In an earlier Localis contribution to ConHome on England’s place in the union, and taking our cue from George Orwell, we advocated that “England has got to assume its real shape”. A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome, it was argued. And as Paul Goodman instantly observed of the Plan for Growth in ConHome, “if it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power”.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration;
  • build a framework for devolution to skills advisory panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels;
  • create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero; and
  • clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in LEPs – in driving economic development.
The political and economic imperative

Many Red Wall Conservative MPs will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. A joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up can achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership.

Witness the electoral fortunes of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Their likely success is testament to the policy vision laid out for trusting men of “push and go”, charismatic regional leaders with energy and vision to champion their wide economic area. So on the basis that a combination of the vaccination bounce and whatever local political factors ensure a satisfactory set of local and regional results overnight, there should be both confidence and conviction to repay this trust with Whitehall ceding more powers to metro mayors in a deeper devolution settlement.

Otherwise, we risk the continuation of a lop-sided, centrally-led, interventionist growth policy which only serves to hamstring our localities from achieving anything like their fullest inherent economic and place potential.

Houchen has won a freeport for Teesside. Will the voters reward him?

1 Apr

On Tuesday I noted that most of the areas represented by the Mayor of the West Midlands were not traditional Tory territory. That applies even more so when it comes to Tees Valley. That covers the five local authorities of Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool, and Darlington. Together they constitute the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Yet on May 7th 2017, we saw Ben Houchen, the Conservative candidate, elected as the Mayor of the Tees Valley. The margin of victory was almost as narrow as Andy Street’s in the West Midlands. In the first round, Houchen won 39.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 39.0 per cent to his Labour opponent. The second round then saw transfers added from UKIP and Lib Dem supporters. This saw Houchen elected with 51.1 per cent, with his Labour opponent on 48.9 per cent.

In 2017, the local election results extrapolated into a projected national lead of 11 per cent for the Conservatives over Labour. So if one was to be a desiccated calculating machine, the conclusion would be that current opinion poll leads for the Conservatives below nine per cent indicate that Houchen will be defeated. But that would discount regional variations. Just as the Conservatives have been doing relatively badly in London, when it comes to Teesside they are on the up.

Among the soundings I have taken, the Conservatives are rather bullish about Houchen’s prospects. Of course, the political direction anticipated in Hartlepool has already been much discussed. But the General Election of 2019 offers plenty of encouraging stats. The Conservatives not only gained Darlington but had a majority of over 3,000. The same happened in Redcar. Stockton South was gained and with a Conservative majority of over 5,000. Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland was not just held by the Conservatives, but with a majority of over 10,000. Labour hung on in Stockton North – but only by a thousand votes. In other words, though Labour only needs a tiny advance on their 2017 result to win, if we take 2019 as the guide, then Labour would need a significant recovery.

While Houchen’s victory was a shock, his credentials as a candidate were pretty solid. Though he was young to take on such a formidable role – he is still only 34 – Houchen had already qualified as a solicitor, founded a successful international sportswear business, stood for Parliament, and served as Leader of the Conservative Group on Stockton-on-Tees Council.

As Mayor, perhaps his greatest national significance has been in championing freeports – a theme he has written about for us. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had argued in 2016 that Brexit gave an opportunity to make use of them. However, with the grey men in Whitehall always looking out for “administrative difficulties” it is important to having vigorous backing. Not just for such reforms to be introduced, but to do applied in a bold and radical way – rather than emasculated when it comes to the small print. Eight freeports were announced in last month’s Budget, including one in Teesside.

Houchen says:

“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.”

Freeports fit in with Conservative principles when it comes to “levelling up”. That is because they rely on the confidence that, if the state gets out of the way, then the free market will prove effective at widening prosperity. Not that Houchen is entirely fanatical in following free market ideology. He brought Teesside Airport back under state ownership.

Houchen is the Chairman of the South Tees Development Corporation – the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of Greater London. It covers a 4,500 acre site in Redcar – including the former SSI steelworks site. Houchen has pledged to use his powers to “kickstart” economic development on the site.

The Devolution Deal negotiated included transport infrastructure and adult education and training.

There was a low turnout last time which makes the result harder to predict. Many former Labour supporters felt let down and abstained in 2017 as a way of signifying their disillusion while retaining an antipathy to the Conservatives. What will they do next month? Some may return to the Labour fold, feeling that their old Party has been taught a lesson and has removed Jeremy Corbyn. They may note that Labour seems to have accepted that Brexit is now the reality and do not propose we rejoin the EU. Others may be less forgiving. Having been neglected and taken for granted by Labour for all those years, they might grudgingly concede that the Conservatives are making a bit of an effort on their behalf. My prediction is that enough of them will agree that Houchen has kept faith with them to secure a second term.