Chancellor makes Teesside the poster child for ‘levelling up’ ambitions

Redcar is set to become part of a freeport.

There’s been a lot of talk since the 2019 general election about how the government is going to ‘level up’ prosperity around the country. Now, finally, that idea has some meaningful shape to it. And the place to look is Teesside - or the Tees Valley at least.

After confirming freeport status and naming Darlington as the location for the new Treasury North campus, Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered a quite extraordinary homage to the area during his Budget speech today. He said: “When I look to the future of Teesside, I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon, vaccines being manufactured, offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country. I see people optimistic and ambitious for their future. That is the future economy of this country.”

Without knowing the strengths and weaknesses of every rival bid for those two big moves, Teesside does appear to be a good place to start. There are significant areas of deprivation, and deep-rooted challenges around everything from healthy life expectancy to exam results. The closure of Redcar’s steelworks in 2015 is still pretty fresh in the memory. But real signs of renewal are also clear, as the Chancellor mentioned.

It also works for the government politically. There’s a Tees Valley mayoral election coming up, and a glut of new Conservative MPs looking to prove their worth, including in Darlington. There have been questions around why the town, which is relatively affluent, was chosen for the Treasury base ahead of nearby Middlesbrough, which has a Labour MP and arguably many greater challenges.

In the Budget small-print today, there was some ‘Town Deals’ funding for regeneration projects in Middlesbrough, as well as Thornaby, Whitby and Scarborough - and also support for Teesside to become a hub for building offshore wind equipment.

Nothing much was announced for the northern part of our region though, with Newcastle overlooked for the government campus, and a proposed freeport stretching from the Port of Blyth down to Nissan not among the eight successful bids around England.

Nevertheless, for the North East as a whole, today’s news has probably already moved the Johnson and Sunak incarnation of these big ambitions beyond the previous version, ‘the Northern Powerhouse’, which seemed so focused on Manchester.

We’re told the Teesside freeport could create 18,000 jobs. Sceptics say the low-tax zones just move economic activity around, though perhaps that’s not the worst thing when it comes to ‘levelling up.’ 

Treasury North will just see 750 civil servants moved up from London, though the big long-term hope is that living in the North East will mean they better understand the region and its needs when making policies in the future.

The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said today that this was “not the bold long-term plan that we need to up-skill our economy, to tackle educational attainment or to raise life expectancy. For the Chancellor, levelling up seems to mean moving some parts of the Treasury to Darlington, creating a few freeports, and re-announcing funding. That is not levelling up; it is giving up.”

On the other hand, the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland Simon Clarke said that the Budget: “is the most significant moment in the modern history of Teesside.”

As ever with these things, the next few years will tell us whose assessment is closer to the mark.

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