Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
If the Conservative Party is to have a chance at taking the Parliamentary seats it needs to win in the North it must become the party of towns. Unlocking the potential of the whole north means empowering the 53 per cent of people that don’t live in cities.
The lack of focus on towns, from Blackpool to Billingham, is far from being exclusively a Tory issue. Some of our major media outlets are under the impression that the North begins in Manchester and ends in Leeds.
Indeed, as important as plans are to improve rail connectivity between cities in the North, these don’t feel like an investment in people far removed from the urban centres.
Similar to the focus on cities, is the focus on poverty. The image of large swathes of the north as a post-industrial wasteland filled with abandoned Victorian terraces isn’t just wrong and offensive. It’s actively dangerous. Yes we have our problems and we have a long way to go before we catch up with London and the South East, but we have vast areas of prosperity and productivity that are vastly misrepresented by these tired stereotypes.
It can’t, however, be concealed that many provincial towns are shadows of what they once were. There isn’t one overarching reason for this, but the post-war consensus, 1960s planners, and decade after decade of Labour councillors willing to manage decline have all played their part. As civic pride drained away, so did the Conservative Party’s chances, but perhaps all that can change.
The polls show Boris Johnson is riding high, which puts us in an ideal position to win some Labour seats that Jeremy Corbyn has all but abandoned across the North. Now that Brexit has changed the nation’s political reality and seats gained from the Lib Dems in 2015 may well go back to them, plus a similar situation with some gains from the SNP in Scotland, the Conservatives must make the effort in the towns of the North.
Nobody expects our new Prime Minister to lead our party into the looming general election with the hubris of 2017. He knows just how hard a fight it will be. He has, however, made a good start when it comes to changing attitudes to the Conservatives in the North’s towns. The £3.6 billion towns fund will inject up to £25 million into 100 transformative projects focused on long-term renewal.
The impending election aside, turning around attitudes towards Tories in the towns will require more than just money. People are sick of hearing about the next big scheme to turn things around; they’ve heard it all before, over and over again. A sustainable base in the North outside of the safely blue shires means delivering.
This doesn’t just mean delivering cash, anyone can do that. It means giving towns and rural areas the power and responsibility to turn around their own fortunes.
As the Mayor of a region that has decided to take control of its own destiny through devolution; one that has turned its back on deprivation and the downward course successive generations of local Labour politicians set it on; I know that we can change things in the North’s towns – and simultaneously change attitudes towards us at the same time.
We need to show the world that there is more to the North than just Manchester and poverty, that we are here for the long haul, and that we are serious about turning around our communities. I know dozens of Conservative politicians and thousands of activists across the Tees Valley, Yorkshire, the North West, and even further afield, have always been ready to do their bit. Now I am hopeful that our Government is up to the challenge too.