Choosing Darlington for a new Treasury base "looks odd at best" and "doesn't make sense", according to Middlesbrough's mayor.
The town has been touted as a possible new site for 750 civil service jobs moving out of London ahead of an announcement by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in the budget next week.
But there has been frustration at Middlesbrough and Stockton failing to make the final shortlist - and now Mayor Andy Preston has sounded his own concerns.
The independent mayor had been keen on the Treasury base moving to the dock at Middlehaven.
And the emergence of Darlington as a possible home for the new jobs left him slightly bemused.
Mr Preston said: "Congratulations to Darlington - it's a great town and I'm pleased for them.
But if moving a department of the Treasury to the North was really part of the Government's levelling up goal, then this move doesn't make any sense. Darlington doesn't have any more need of levelling up than many towns in the south - so the Government's decision looks odd at best.
A cross party group of MPs and council leaders across the Tees Valley has written to the Government urging them to choose the region as part of the "levelling up" agenda.
Links on the East Coast Main Line are thought to be behind Darlington's status among front runners for the Treasury North hub.
It's understood the town faces competition from Newcastle, Bradford and Leeds.
And it remains to be seen how many workers would commute from York or Durham if a Darlington town centre site gets the nod.
Mr Preston believed Middlesbrough's new direct trains to London would have meant its combined road and rail connectivity would have seen links "as good as" those in Darlington.
"Darlington isn't any more deprived than many southern towns - and has already benefited from Government job relocations," he added.
"Middlesbrough has the space, the road links in the centre of town and the economic need to justify being at the front of the queue for levelling up.
"But I won't complain about things we can't change.
"Good luck to Darlington - I hope you win the jobs ahead of Newcastle and Leeds."
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has been working on the plans with Mr Sunak for more than a year - and believed Darlington would be a "superb location".
The Conservative mayor said:
The whole point of moving senior civil servants out of the capital is to dramatically change their outlook and better inform policy - something that simply cannot and will not happen if they move to another metropolitan city such as Leeds or Newcastle.
Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald had pushed for the jobs to come to his town centre - resounding his plea after developers Ashall unveiled plans for more new office blocks in Centre Square this week.
He welcomed the jobs coming to the Tees Valley if Darlington was successful but wanted to know why Middlesbrough had been "ignored" - and accused leaders of making decisions based on "Tory party political interests".
The Labour MP added:
I have made repeated representations to Rishi Sunak over the last year and he and his officials haven't even done me the courtesy of a reply. There is absolutely no transparency over this process whatsoever. We've no idea how various proposals are being assessed.
Mr Houchen hit back at Mr McDonald - accusing Labour in turn of trying to "damage our chances" rather than getting behind the plan.
The mayor said: "Their whinging and negativity does nothing but reduce our chances of the Government actually announcing this amazing opportunity for our area.
"It is this attitude that has held our region back for so many years."
In response to the concerns, Darlington MP Peter Gibson said he understood Mr Preston's perspective given he himself was born in Middlesbrough.
But he added he had to do his utmost for Darlington.
The Conservative MP believed his town had "tremendous advantages" - with the M1 nearby, direct rail links to London, and how close it was to Teesside Airport.
He also pointed to the existing "pool of talent" in Darlington with civil servants already working in the Department for Education, Capita and the Student Loans Company.
Mr Gibson said: "We have a number of pieces on infrastructure and talent pools the Treasury would be able to draw upon.
"From my perspective, Darlington does need to be levelled up - it does have its issues with deprivation and needs to be part of it.
For far too long the Tees Valley - the towns of Teesside and those adjoining the River Tees - haven't worked together enough to sell the story of our area.
The Tory MP, who was elected in 2019, said his party colleagues in the region were "on the same page" - and believed the wider economy would benefit if Darlington did.
Mr Gibson added: "I don't begrudge Middlesbrough getting new investment and new jobs - just as I wouldn't begrudge Stockton, Hartlepool or Redcar getting new jobs.
"We live and enjoy this fabulous part of the world because of the proximity of the economy we all live and work in - we all benefit collectively from that.
"At this critical stage in the decision making by the Treasury, I don't think it's beneficial to the wider economy to see splits and divisions in local politicians who should be backing the bid in the Tees Valley - whichever town they choose to come to."
A decision on the Treasury hub is expected in time for the budget on March 3.