Simon Clarke is senior Policy Adviser to Graham Stuart MP, and is PPC for Middlesbrough.
Boomtown Middlesbrough, forged in the white heat of the Industrial Revolution, was the poster boy of Victorian Britain. In the space of a few extraordinary decades, the Tees became England’s own Steel River. On a visit in 1862, Gladstone christened the town “This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise, is an infant, but if an infant, an infant Hercules”.
Famously, Hercules strangled snakes in his cradle. But today, it is Middlesbrough that is in danger of being strangled. Many of the town’s vital signs are flashing red – and the local Labour establishment isn’t up to the challenge.
I was born in Middlesbrough during the early 1980s. My family has served the town in both the public and private sector, working in the NHS, sitting as magistrates and chairing local charities. I am very proud to be from the Boro. Ian Horn’s poem says: “We built the world”. We did and continue to: Teesside steel is in landmarks from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to New York’s new Freedom Tower.
Anyone who has seen the tremendous activity of the chemical and steel plants, the stunning Mima art gallery and the ships queuing up to enter Teesport can be in no doubt as to the town’s potential. But the affection and loyalty that I and so many others feel for Middlesbrough means that we must not hide away from the fact that the town is in crisis.
The Labour Party ran Middlesbrough long before I was born, and have run it ever since. They’ve provided the MP, they dominate the council, they are responsible for the police and the schools. And together, they have failed our town.
Based on the most recent data, the Middlesbrough constituency has the sixth highest unemployment rate in Britain, and the eleventh highest level of crime in the whole of England and Wales. Six of the town’s wards are in the one per cent of most deprived wards nationally, and four of those either showed no improvement or became relatively more deprived between 2007 and 2010.
The problems start before children have a chance in life. Despite some excellent primary schools, pupil attainment at each key stage in Middlesbrough remains well below national averages and progress slows as pupils get older. Children in Middlesbrough have a 48 per cent chance of going to a good or outstanding secondary school, compared to 72 per cent in Sunderland, 84 per cent in Newcastle and 91 per cent in South Tyneside.
The 2014 GCSE data showed that, in two Middlesbrough secondary schools, just one per cent of pupils obtained the English Baccalaureate (awarded for getting a C grade or better in five core academic subjects), which means that they are an astonishing 24 times less likely to do so than the average state school pupil. The proportion of school leavers who become NEET (not in education, employment or training) is almost double the national average.
Feeding upon and fuelling these problems come a raft of others: official statistics reveal that Middlesbrough has the highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England while, in 2013, the Centre for Social Justice reported that one in forty adults in the town is an opiate and/or crack user. Public Health England’s 2014 profile shows that Middlesbrough has the highest level of drug misuse in the country. There is nowhere in England where a child is more likely to become pregnant before they are 18.
This kind of misery has been summed up as “the most expensive poverty in the world.” It is particularly expensive for Middlesbrough home-owners: council tax for a Band D home is £158 higher than the national average, as the authority continues to reject Government support to freeze rates. Meanwhile, former Middlesbrough Council Chief Executive Ian Parker recently walked away with almost £300,000 towards his early retirement.
They say success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. That kind of thinking cannot continue in Middlesbrough.
If we need further evidence of this, we need only to look at education policy. Last year, Ofsted issued a highly critical report on Middlesbrough Council. Inspectors warned that turnaround plans for struggling schools were not assessed and that there was no coherent strategy to tackle youth unemployment. They concluded: “The authority does not know the schools in the area well enough to bring about the rapid improvement that is urgently needed.”
Ofsted ended its report with a stinging rebuke: “The leadership from elected members is weak… they do not appreciate how poor performance is across the authority. They are not well placed to hold officers and schools to account, or to champion young people’s rights to high-quality education.”
What was Middlesbrough Council’s response to this? Ray Mallon, the Mayor, insisted that everything was fine and attacked “frankly dysfunctional” Ofsted inspectors. The week after Ofsted’s report was published, the council promoted its Mike Robinson, its schools boss, to serve as its new Chief Executive, on the same salary as the Prime Minister.
The council finally unveiled a school effectiveness strategy in November. I am holding them to account to ensure that this delivers – but when I raised these issues on BBC Tees, Andy McDonald, Middlesbrough’s MP, said that my questions were “ridiculous” and “beyond the pale”. It was a display of the same complacency shown by his predecessor, Sir Stuart Bell, who failed to hold a surgery for 15 years – as John Walsh exposed to devastating effect in Toryboy: The Movie.
It is against this backdrop that the importance of May’s elections to both Parliament and the council should be understood. The economic recovery delivered by George Osborne has helped record numbers of people into work, and has cut the number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance in Middlesbrough by 31 per cent over the last year. Theresa May’s Home Office is delivering the lowest levels of crime since records began in 1981. Who can seriously argue that more, much more, of the same isn’t needed?
Middlesbrough’s experience also shows why the Conservatives’ education reforms are so important. The Government’s relentless emphasis upon standards is bearing fruit: we now have one million more children being taught in good or outstanding schools since 2010. It is only by keeping this up that outcomes in Middlesbrough will improve.
Likewise, Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms to our welfare system so that work always pays need time to take effect. The Spectator has calculated that the tax rate for those starting a low-earning job can effectively amount to 91 per cent as benefits are tapered accordingly – meaning that somebody doing the right thing can end up being better off to the tune of just 9p in the pound. The introduction of Universal Credit to start changing this must be a major national priority.
Over the coming months I will be setting out my plan for Middlesbrough. Key priorities include: ensuring that the new Tees Valley Growth and City Deals deliver growth and jobs; challenging the under-performing council to deliver better support for schools; tackling youth unemployment; examining ways in which the local authority could save costs and crack down on waste; and electing a team of Conservative councillors to fight for Middlesbrough, rather than Labour ones who are more interested in fighting each other.
Middlesbrough is not a town where there are any easy answers, and I don’t pretend that there are. But until the town’s elected politicians start asking the right questions, the promise of the infant Hercules will continue to be betrayed.