Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
Many of Labour’s northern heartland constituencies have fallen. Their fiefdoms in Teesside and County Durham now have Conservative MPs, in many cases for the first time ever. Boris Johnson rules supreme with the backing of voters no other Conservative leader could have hoped to attract. However, their ongoing support cannot and should not be taken for granted.
The Prime Minister has it in his power to reverse decades of economic decline and give some of the most deprived communities the power to lift themselves out of poverty. With the stroke of a pen, he can restore the pride that only comes from being in charge of your own destiny and prosperity and he can do it without needing to spend huge sums of taxpayers’ money.
You might ask how, and the answer is simple, Freeports. Not the bonded warehouse zones the EU like to dress up as freeports on the continent, but fully-fledged Free Trade Zones that will restore the energy and urgency of trade and industry in left-behind areas.
Throughout his leadership campaign and the recent General Election, the Prime Minister rightly touted Freeports as a benefit of Brexit and a reason to vote Tory, and he was right. Since I started to campaign for a Freeport on the Tees two years ago I have found the idea has genuine support across the political spectrum. Even traditional Labour voters, at least those in my region, can see the benefits. I’ve spent the past year and a half putting it together with trade experts, top economists, the ports sector, and businesses large and small.
Thousands of proper manufacturing jobs, the skilled roles people want, as well as billions of pounds of extra economic activity. All delivered without costing the taxpayer, or indeed the Treasury, a penny. All in the nation’s former industrial heartlands and all done without any legislation that compromises employment and environmental protection.
In the Tees Valley region, in the newly Conservative constituency of Redcar, where the majority voted enthusiastically for Brexit, and perhaps cautiously for Boris, lies the best location for a Freeport in the UK, maybe even anywhere. The former SSI steelworks, now under the control of the South Tees Development Corporation could become home to 32,000 Freeport jobs and add £2 billion to my region’s GVA.
The town’s new Tory MP, Jacob Young, an enthusiastic Brexiteer, backs my calls for a Freeport. It was a key plank of his election campaign, and enjoys the support of all of the Tees Valley’s five Conservative parliamentarians.
I’d be a fool to think the first time Conservative voters that have transformed the political landscape of the North are now committed free marketeers, but in backing the Prime Minister and his promise of Freeports, they have given their support for an economically liberal policy that could benefit them in a big way.
Creating these low tax zones, when importing and exporting are made easy, it wouldn’t just mean new jobs, it would make two very important things clear. Firstly, that Boris and the Conservatives are committed to the North in the long term, and voting for us means voting for a better life. To have any chance of retaining any of the new blue seats in the former Labour heartlands he needs demonstrable proof of this.
Secondly, but just as importantly, a Freeports in Teesside would be a powerful symbol that Brexit Britain is open for business in a way that hasn’t been seen for decades.
So Prime Minister, at the risk of reheating a tired cliché, we’ve got an oven-ready plan for freeports that we have been talking to you about for months. Bang it on gas mark six and it will be ready in time for the budget. You will see the results almost immediately and it will be a clear signal to the former Labour voters of Redcar that Boris and the Conservatives can deliver for them. Let’s get this done and transform towns like Redcar.