Ben Houchen is the Mayor of Tees Valley.
2020 has been a tough year for Britain, and people across the world. At a time when the Government should be delivering on its manifesto pledge to level up the North, it is fighting for lives and livelihoods while fending off partisan attacks from supposed statesmen.
Mounting criticism from the opposition, fuelled by partisan political interests, and a changing of the guard in Number 10 have yielded talk of a “reset”. This is music to the ears of the Prime Minister’s opponents, both outside of the Conservative Party and within it. Quite what a reset would entail remains to be seen – it is a vague enough concept at this stage to allow anyone to dream.
Anyone, that is, but the millions of first time Conservative voters in the North of England who want the policies they voted for enacted. Their dream of a better life and a better Britain was made clear in 2016 and again in 2019, while the prospect of them becoming loyal Tory voters in future elections hangs in the balance.
If a reset means a return to the Notting Hill set’s 2010 vintage policies, with their almost slavish devotion to the Green Book and its bias towards investments in London and the South East, then it also means abandoning the North’s new Blue Wall. I know voters in the Tees Valley and similar regions won’t stand for this, and that their new Tory MPs won’t either. Going back to 2010 is no reset at all.
The Government cannot merely flick a switch and suddenly appeal to the same coalition of voters that supported it a decade ago. While many have remained loyal, some were put off by our determination to deliver Brexit and our decision to prioritise left behind communities over the metropolitan liberal elite. Conservative majorities in seats lost to the Lib Dems in the South and the SNP north of The Wall won’t just rematerialise overnight.
The Prime Minister has rightly identified that a Green Industrial Revolution can deliver both post-Covid-19 economic recovery and his Levelling Up agenda. This policy, whilst surely popular with middle class voters in the South, will also go down well in the UK’s industrial communities.
Many of the people I represent have little time for the Hug a Husky politics of the pre-Johnson era, or the increasingly bizarre publicity stunts of extremists like Extinction Rebellion. They’re just as into clean air and against pollution as anyone, but the real draw of a Green Industrial Revolution is that it will mean more good jobs, both skilled and professional. Good jobs close to home too, not roles necessitating long commutes and weeks on end away from family.
The latest clean technologies, including carbon capture and hydrogen power, can simultaneously bring the UK closer to net zero while creating good-quality jobs in the places they’re most needed. The Government has already announced the Tees Valley as the home of Britain’s national Hydrogen Transport Hub and has signalled its support for the Net Zero Teesside Carbon Capture project, which will deliver on these new, well paid jobs of the future.
Projects like these can yield thousands of jobs in the Teesside area alone, and tens if not hundreds of thousands nationwide, but that’s only part of their appeal. By decarbonising our existing energy intensive industries we can secure their future for decades to come, rather than let them become uncompetitive as penalties for emissions build up.
Another key plank of the Government’s levelling up agenda for the North is the creation of Freeports. These low-tax zones encourage trade, and investment in industry by making it easier and cheaper to do business. A Freeport would be an economic boon to any of the UK’s port towns, especially Redcar where I am bidding to create the largest such zone in the country.
Freeport incentives alone can incentivise inward investment and job creation, and even bring about the reshoring of some of our long-lost manufacturing activities. When combined with net zero technologies, especially carbon capture, they can cut the cost of going green and bring about net zero sooner.
A low-tax Freeport with on-site access to carbon capture facilities, that store CO2 miles under the sea rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, could be the perfect home for a clean steel making plant. This would mean all the benefits of domestic steelmaking without reliance on coal, by using electric arc furnaces. This steel could even find itself used in the production of offshore wind turbines for multi-gigawatt windfarms like Dogger Bank, just 80 miles of the North East coast.
On top of new industrial jobs and a general shift of the UK’s centre of economic gravity in a more northerly direction, another big Government promise that could yield results in this parliament is the relocation of the Civil Service. It’s easy to understand that moving public sector jobs to towns like Darlington and Stockton means more opportunities there and a commensurate uptick for the local economy, but there is a much more important rationale for this long overdue reform – taking back control.
When the people of the North voted to leave the European Union they did so in hope of a better life, and in the knowledge that their vote was one to take power from an unelected and unaccountable elite and bring it closer to home. Moving decision making from Brussels and Strasbourg to London and other big cities like Manchester just won’t answer that demand.
If we are to affect a fundamental shift in the way our country is governed then the civil servants that design and implement legislation – real decisions with real world consequences – must be drawn from a much wider area. Meaningful change will only happen when Whitehall moves north, but it must be to the ‘blue wall’ and not just another metropolitan city. That will do nothing for voters in Teesside and will be the façade of levelling up without actually levelling up.
New job opportunities, whether they be in engineering and manufacturing on Freeport sites, in relocated Government departments, or in the professional services firms that will move north to support these institutions, will be of a quantity and quality not seen in decades. They would represent a step change in economic opportunity for people outside of the capital that was unimaginable even a decade ago.
For the first time in my lifetime we have a Government ready to make the right investment to redress the imbalance between the regions and London, and a reset cannot be allowed to stop this. The Prime Minister, and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, are on the cusp of delivering a once in a generation change in the fields of politics and economics. Now is the time to forget about the reset and double down on levelling up.