Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Sweet Times, Langley Park, County Durham
“There is nothing new under the sun” – or even under the sleety rain that hammered my windscreen as I drove from Langley Park, a small former mining town that is now commuter village for the City of Durham, to Weardale Community Hospital on Friday evening.
What I was turning over in my head was the Durham County Council County Development Plan of 1951 – a massive red bound document that I’d finally received from House of Commons Library a few days before.
I slurped on the black coffee I’d picked up from Sweet Times, a lovely little ice cream parlour and sweet shop, and started to think about the inertia that has been the hallmark of the Labour Party in many parts of so-called ‘left behind’ Britain. Then another phrase came to mind: “masterly inactivity”: the policy which Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame wishes his ministers would pursue.
In 2019, my colleague, Dehenna Davison won her seat in Bishop Auckland with a pledge to fight for an upgrade to the A68, namely the Toft Hill Bypass. It’s a cause I have supported in my campaign and have raised in Parliament myself, since it would greatly benefit the town of Crook and villages of Weardale in my constituency, opening the door to new employers locally.
To my astonishment, this proposed bypass is mentioned on page 134c of the now 70-year-old County Plan, A small dotted red line meanders round Toft Hill and High Etherley in the 1951 plan, ensuring that the T- Junction on the A68 right in the centre of the busy villages would have become a thing of the past.
While significant parts of the County Plan later became massively discredited, especially the so called “D-notice villages and towns” – areas that the Labour authority decided were not viable, and so were just demolished – ripping up entire communities and, rather than seeking to encourage new jobs and employment locally, literally moving them to New Towns, like Peterlee miles away.
But there in the document that the Library had provided was transport infrastructure planned a whole lifetime ago – but never actually bothered with, and still relevant and called for today.
How it is that, threescore years and ten on from the County Plan, campaigns are still having to be run calling for the same solutions is baffling. It’s hardly surprising that there is grievance with the local authority or with government generally. It’s clear why there is a degree of scepticism about the promises made by politicians – especially about whether improvements that have been talked about for a lifetime will ever come to pass.
One of the saddest things that happened to me since I was elected is the decision to oppose, for purely political grounds, a feasibility study (which I have now secured) into re-opening a public transport route, with improved cycling and walking, between Consett and the Tyne.
My Labour neighbour in Blaydon, Liz Twist, has suggested that the £50,000 that the study would cost should instead be spent on a fleet of new buses. Perhaps she could enlighten me as to where she could get one new bus for £50,000 (never mind a fleet).
This is just one example of how Labour are desperate for the levelling-up agenda – whether it’s transport infrastructure, good new jobs and training opportunities, life-long educational opportunities or broadband rollout – to not happen. They’re desperate for it to fail because they’ve failed to deliver their plan from seven decades ago to do something for Co. Durham and swathes of the North of England. It is their trump card. Importantly, however, we Conservatives need to realise what they know, which is that that their trump card is actually their only card – the card that says ‘you see, voting Conservative didn’t change anything’. It’s our job to deny them that single card deck.
The pandemic has been, and still is, horrendous. By the time we return to any sense of normality, it will essentially have chopped 18 months off the Government’s term for being able to deliver “levelling-up”, and dealt a huge blow to the public finances. But the one thing that we must do as a Government is do our level best to deliver on this agenda.
Recent Onward polls show that for the Conservatives 2019 (following on from an improving picture in 2017) is potentially just the start of a broader movement away from Labour in the North of England. There are many seats – North Durham, Blaydon, Stockton North, the Sunderland seats, Wansbeck – that now all lie within the grasp of the Conservative Party in the North East alone.
After seven decades of seeing Labour fail to deliver its plan to ‘level-up’, we have been given an opportunity. Delivering is not easy, but it’s do-able, and will last long after Covid-19 has been vaccinated away.
We’ve got to make the most of it now and show Labour up to be the doyens of ‘masterly inactivity’ that they have been for decades. They will doubtless squabble amongst themselves as to whether they prefer Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer for the next four years but we can’t rely on them to make out case. That’s down to us.
In doing so, it’s not just Britain that Boris Johnson can ‘build back better’, it’s that political wall across the North that we have the opportunity to permanently change from Red to Blue.