Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
After a century under a Labour County Council and almost as long with Labour MPs, my constituency of North West Durham epitomises what has been described as ‘left behind Britain’. At the end of the Second World War, Consett had multiple rail connections and, like much of the North East, was dominated by heavy industry.
From the end of the war until the mid-1980s there was a period of industrial decline. It happened at varying pace, under both Labour and Conservative Governments, with the closure of the steel works the seismic end of that era. For decades, local politics has revolved around an historic blame game that continues, in some way at least, to this day.
The closure of the pits happened over decades, culminating in the Miners’ Strike but, by that point, there were no deep-coal mines left in North West Durham. The decline of coal had been happening for over 30 years before the strike.
As early as 1951, the council published the notorious “County Development Plan 1951” which included plans for “D-Villages” – the widescale demolition of over 100 towns and villages deemed no-longer viable due to the closure of pits. The steelworks themselves closed in 1980: lack of modernisation and investment, international competition, union intransigence and the 1967 renationalisation plan (which excluded Consett) all had their parts to play.
And, as industry left, so did the infrastructure that supported it. Consett had multiple rail lines to it in 1950. Today there are none, the last going with the steelworks.
This managed decline left my constituency to this day with no rail service and no dual carriageway. Jobs have slowly returned, and the population has grown, although at least half my constituents now commute to the towns and cities of the wider region for work and, despite some efforts, the town centres of Consett, Crook and Willington have never really recovered.
Into this historic mix at the last general election were thrown Brexit, an avowedly class-war style Labour Party, and an optimistic Conservative party. The resulting collapse of the Labour vote and switch in seats like mine was more than a vote against something. It was also a vote for something too.
No-one thinks that a large-scale return to traditional heavy industry is possible, or even desirable, but people do want better than what they’ve had. They want their potential and their area’s potential to be supported. Like everyone else, they want more opportunities for their children and themselves, and for their strong communities to thrive.
They seek good, well-paying jobs and the opportunity to create them as well. Attracting businesses into the area is essential, and re-connecting it in terms of transport would be a significant catalyst for economic growth, and provide a two-way exchange.
They also want public services to match our growing community. We’ve got lots of brownfield land on the old steelworks site, and more widely too to support growth. But we’ve got to have the infrastructure to support it as well.
Since being elected, I’ve pushed hard for my constituency, quite unashamedly. One of the first things that I campaigned for was the motorhomes tax cut – reversing an EU regulation that had led to a tax rise hitting one of the largest employers in my constituency, and I delivered it.
Astonishingly, it was something that hadn’t even been mentioned in Parliament by my predecessor. I’ve also pushed hard for a new community hospital to replace one that’s currently costing over £1.7 million a year in running maintenance and repairs.
Shotley Bridge hospital was mentioned in Parliament three times in ten years by my predecessors; it’s been mentioned as often by me in the last six months. Labour played on the idea of being ignored by Conservatives. The more I’ve looked, the more it appears that the local Labour MPs were happy to stick to the blame game, rather than doing anything about the broader situation
But what’s shocked me is that Labour’s traditional approach has continued. Last Wednesday, I submitted an expression of interest for a new public transport scheme to re-connect Consett by fixed-line public transport back to Gateshead, Newcastle and the urban centre of the North East – something that is sorely needed.
I spoke to local councillors about it in advance (bearing in mind that I have no Conservative councillors in my area) in Durham Council and in Gateshead. I even gave my neighbouring local Labour MP to the north the heads up. Liz Twist told me that she wouldn’t come out for or against, but would see how I got on in my feasibility study bid. I said if she didn’t oppose it, I wouldn’t have a go at her for not supporting it from the off.
But then the traditional Labour politics came in – desperate to stop anything positive, and return to the historic blame game. Within hours of me raising the need for better public transport as I submitted the proposal, and before I’d even done my own social media posts locally, Liz Twist had been out attacking it. The irony of the entire situation is that my constituents currently sit in traffic jams in her seat trying to get to work – as do many of her own constituents.
Can you imagine the petty party-political small-mindedness of opposing a bid for a feasibility study for a public transport project?
That, I’m afraid, is the Labour way. If it’s not an idea that they can wholly own, they’d rather it didn’t happen. If it means working with other parties, they’d rather kill it than see progress made. If it means potentially hundreds of millions of pounds of investment into transformational projects, if it’s not their idea, then they’d rather see it wither on the vine.
I have a message for the Labour MPs who remain, who saw their majorities slashed. You are not sitting in Parliament to represent the narrow political interests of the Labour Party based on some bizarre historic grievance politics. You’re there because you were elected by the people. You’ve had decades to do something and so many of you have done very little.
Being an MP isn’t an honour bestowed on you from Labour high command; it’s a crucial role to represent and stand up for your community. If you’re not prepared to work with MPs of other parties, then we’re going to work with local people to do everything possible to get you out of the way.
Labour MPs and Labour councillors now will reap the whirlwind of righteous anger from the public they’re meant to serve unless they change their old tune of grievance and do so quickly.