Greg Clark is Minister for Cities and MP for Tunbridge Wells.
North Lincolnshire – spreading from the southern end of the Humber Bridge at Barton-upon-Humber inland to the steelmaking town of Scunthorpe and the market town of Brigg – may not be a familiar place to many who don’t live and work there. And the North Lincolnshire Unitary Authority is not nearly as well-known as flagship Conservative councils such as Trafford (which I featured in my last column), the City of Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham. But it ought to be. A Conservative transformation is taking place on the south bank of the Humber that is as impressive as anywhere else in England.
North Lincolnshire is a crucial electoral battleground for us. Between 1997 and 2010, all three parliamentary seats were held by Labour. At the last election, we won two of them. And in 2011 something special happened: against the usual national swing against the incumbent government, North Lincs council swung decisively Conservative, as Labour were swept from power and a new Conservative administration elected. North Lincs has the distinction of being the only council in the country to have been won by Conservatives from Labour since the last election.
The author of that success is one of our party’s most effective politicians – Councillor Liz Redfern, now Leader of the Council. From the moment she was elected, Liz moved quickly to pursue a strong and effective Conservative policy. Senior management at the council was thinned out, councillors’ allowances were cut, and waste rooted out. As a result of a new financial broom, the council tax has been frozen for four consecutive years.
In an area that had for many years lagged behind others in skills levels and worklessness, Liz Redfern made it a priority to do everything possible to give young people the chance to improve their education and equip them with the skills to take up jobs in the future.
While in many places library provision has shrunk, in North Lincs it has expanded – with new libraries being opened in communities that haven’t had one in decades. To raise literacy rates 5,000 under 5s in North Lincolnshire are now signed up to a scheme which has them sent a free reading book each month by post. They then receive an appropriate book for their age every month until their fifth birthday. The Conservative administration has reversed the previous Labour Council’s cuts to youth services, and a substantial programme of improvement in school buildings has been undertaken.
Trade union posts within the council have been reviewed so that the money spent on them can be spent on skills training. And now, Liz and her fellow Conservative councillors have worked successfully – extraordinarily, in the teeth of opposition from the sole remaining Labour MP – to gain a £12m new University Technical College in Scunthorpe, which is scheduled to open in September next year.
This is a phenomenal set of achievements in the space of three years since taking over control of the council from Labour.
As Cities Minister, I have worked with Liz and seen her in action. She is warm, smart and enthusiastic – and above all effective. When the tidal surge struck North Lincolnshire last December, Liz and her cabinet didn’t wait for national policy measures to be taken – they swung into action and agreed a grant of £300 for all flood victims and £1,000 interest free loans for those affected. This was a tremendous reassurance to those whose lives had been turned upside down by this sudden crisis.
I have negotiated a City Deal bringing all of the councils, businesses and colleges on the north and south banks of the Humber together into a series of investments capitalising on the unique strengths of that extraordinary estuary, and the industries and trades that surround it. It means that Siemens can make its £160 million investment knowing that the whole area is joining forces to make sure that the port facilities, the local infrastructure and the skills of the workforce are responsive to the needs of the project and the economic opportunities it provides.
Historically, those cross-Humber relationships have often been fractious – something that many believe has held back the area from punching at its true weight. I have seen Liz in those negotiations and she has been a real force for acting together. Often heavily outnumbered by Labour leaders from other councils (though well supported by Stephen Parnaby from the East Riding of Yorkshire) Liz has always held her own and brought out the shared interest of both sides of the Humber and all political parties in getting the local economy restored to prosperity.
Liz Redfern, with the support of key colleagues such as Group Secretary and Cabinet Member Cllr Rob Waltham, is effecting real change. They helped to get Andrew Percy and Martin Vickers elected to Parliament in 2010. The way that they are running the North Lincolnshire council will be a huge boost to both MPs in their campaigns for re-election next year.