Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
With spirits buoyed by the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of pandemic restrictions, and the light at the end of the Covid tunnel finally in sight, all eyes now turn to the Budget on March 3.
This could be one of the most influential Budgets, both for our nation and for the region I represent, in a generation. Crucial decisions need to be weighed and judged by the Chancellor to ensure that our comeback from Covid is powerful and that the light at the end of that tunnel proves to shine on a better future.
There is no doubt in my mind that the top priority for Rishi Sunak is jobs and rebuilding the economy – an economy battered by the necessary restrictions on lives and livelihoods. I know from talking to local businesses how many are fighting on the edge, and it’s to the Government’s credit that the furlough scheme and other financial support have kept so many businesses alive and people in employment.
The “Red Wall” communities in my area overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in the last election, and it’s essential that the faith they put in him is returned. The Prime Minister promised a new kind of government, free of Brussels blinkers and Whitehall hand-wringing, which would address ordinary people’s concerns.
The best way to prevent low incomes and low opportunities from blighting the lives and hopes of adults and children, especially in the UK’s left-behind communities, is to do all we can to create new, good quality, well-paid jobs, on an unprecedented scale.
However, for a jobs agenda to be effective, it needs to be directed with strategy and precision. This can’t be an illusory statistical employment growth driven by foreign workers on contracts in the south. At the last election, the country was promised better policymaking for towns, villages and rural areas, and a transformative levelling up programme which would see growth, prosperity, and potential finally realised in communities across the nation.
This is the moment for a step-change in that levelling up agenda, to drive a jobs revolution in areas like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Only by marrying the levelling up agenda to the jobs agenda will we ensure that new growth is serious, sustained, and benefits everyone.
There are two key ways in which the Chancellor can kick-start the recovery, levelling up, and the creation of good quality, well-paid jobs in my area. I and my team have done the groundwork, and the question is: will the Government grasp these golden opportunities?
The first, and most essential, step needed is for the Chancellor to give the green light to my plans for the Teesside Freeport. With thousands of acres of developable land, the largest deep-water port on the east coast, a nation-leading focus on delivering net zero technology and clean growth, and a pathway to pioneering innovations to support the whole UK freeport ecosystem, 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.
Sunak was an early supporter of freeports himself, so I know that he understands the enormous potential we have here. The Teesside Freeport could create more than 18,000 skilled, good-quality, well paid jobs over the next five years and boost the local economy by £3.2billion. It would also increase inward investment into Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion.
Now the Chancellor needs to have the courage to overrule any official arguing to delay pressing ahead with this game-changing jobs catalyst. As soon as Sunak gives us the green light, I’ll be driving this forward, unleashing the potential of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.
The second action I’m looking for from the Chancellor is another where I know he understands the opportunity, but where again he needs to cut down the unimaginative Sir Humphreys within his department.
The Government’s plan to relocate 22,000 senior Whitehall civil servants out of London by 2030 will see 800 civil servants moved from Sunak’s own department to a new northern economic campus, dubbed “Treasury North”.
The vast majority of people don’t live in metropolitan cities, they live in our towns, our villages, in the countryside and on the coast. By moving out of London these civil servants will be able to develop a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities people are confronted with on a daily basis and, ultimately, develop better policy that is anchored in real knowledge gained by living in the communities it will impact the most.
For decades, talented local people in my area, graduates of fantastic northern universities and people who should have played an important part in our communities, have been sucked away by over-centralised bureaucracy. Now this self-perpetuating cycle can be broken. More than 100 local business leaders, both Teesside and Durham Universities, and political leaders from across the political spectrum have backed my proposal to bring Treasury North to Teesside.
It would be tragic if the prospect of opportunity and in-tune government was dissolved into a cluster of London civil servants being flown to Manchester, Leeds, or Newcastle. Such an outcome would fail to deliver better policymaking for towns like Hartlepool or Darlington, villages like Stillington or Skinningrove, or rural areas far and wide, and it would fail to deliver the promised levelling up agenda.
On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to set a defining roadmap for our economic recovery from Covid. As a northern MP himself, I believe that he will hear the voice of the North and kickstart a new era of job creation. The tools are in his hands. The nation is waiting for Sunak to equip us to get to work and create the jobs of tomorrow.