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For the good of the North East

As the clock ticks down to the next General Election, Steven Hugill looks at the principal parties vying for voter attention at a time when the North East’s future has arguably never been more on the line.

Shhhh. Listen. Can you hear that sound? That’s right. After hiding under a Tory tarpaulin for getting on five years, the General Election Machine is back, all fired up to spin the Westminster wheel once again.

Well, sort of.

Much like Rishi Sunak’s sputtering commitment to a date for Britain’s headline voting rendezvous, the Machine’s engine is wheezing with the death rattle of a damaged cylinder nearing its inevitable demise.

And it’s hardly surprising is it, given what we have nationally?

A Conservative Party stuck in farcical reverse.

A Labour Party – handed an open highway to victory – still planted in the middle lane in third gear.

A Liberal Democrat Party believing again after by-election successes but lacking the mileage for any truly meaningful nationwide road trip (though it should have enough juice in the tank to drive out some Tory targets in leafy southern constituencies).

Throw in mainstream voter sentiment that has been running on fumes for years, and the dashboard warning lights are twinkling feverishly.

But it’s not just a worrying picture nationally.

The stalling of any clear political direction from Westminster – and the emergence of any party truly seizing the initiative – makes for regional concern too, especially in a year where two thirds of the North East will gain a newly-elected regeneration boss, and the Tees Valley, a relative old hand when it comes to metro powers, will hold its third mayoral vote.

A settled domestic picture is crucial.

Because while a regional mayor holds great potential to help salve many ills, they can’t deliver a complete panacea.

Yes, devolution promises freedom and cash (in the case of the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority, £4.2 billion is said to be ringfenced for skills, transport, housing and commercial improvements from Northumberland to County Durham) to better influence and steer an area’s direction of travel.

But that area still needs Government back- up, especially in times of pared local authority budgets, distressing child poverty rates and household and domestic finances still in need of nurturing back to health following that mini- budget.

Sir Keir Starmer, during a whistle-stop North East tour late last year, promised Labour would hold its end of the bargain if it were to take office, telling this publication it would roll out national policies capable of catalysing fresh economic growth and social mobility, all while creating “the conditions for decisions about the North East (to be made) by people with skin in the game.”

Just a few weeks later, though, he was ditching his flagship £28 billion green blueprint.

So forgive the cynic in me that continues to prod away at his pledge… As for the Conservatives, well, at the time of writing, the country was officially in another recession, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch was having a public spat with an ex-Post Office chair, Rishi Sunak was being investigated by Ofcom for an alleged impartiality breach for stepping into GB News’ echo chamber and Lee Anderson was an independent MP, having been suspended by the Tories amid accusations of Islamophobia.

So forgive the cynic in me for wondering if anyone left around the Government table has an idea of what they’re doing…

It’s not just the north of the region where the national scene will impact the North East’s political landscape, though.

For so long propped by a Conservative Party voraciously seeking good news to keep alive its ‘levelling up’ agenda, what of Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen?

Dealing with local authorities and their rainbow of political hues is one thing when you’ve got a direct hotline to Number Ten. But it’d be different again if your main political rival picked up the phone. And that would be just the start. The situation would be further complicated by new names and faces – so long on the other side of the garden fence looking in – wanting to know more about continued press allegations around the transformation of ex-Redcar steelworks land into the mayor’s Teesworks clean energy scheme.

It would be further complicated by reprisal of a recently-released independent report that demands greater transparency and governance of said development.

And it would be further complicated by perspectives on a decision to pick a losing court fight with Teesport operator PD Ports over historic rights of way.

Teesworks, of course, is too far down the track for any change of Government to dramatically alter its momentum.

Steelwork is rising into the sky to create a wind turbine monopile factory, and other developments, including carbon capture and storage and waste-to-energy schemes, are also well advanced.

But it nevertheless serves to highlight an important message.

This country – and thereby this region – desperately needs clarity.

Devolution will only truly work if the powers shifted to the shires are backed by a coherent plan from Westminster’s leading party, which prioritises planning over playground pettiness and strategy over social media squabbles.

One that isn’t going to be sidetracked by horrendous crisis management; that isn’t going to be scuttled by disastrous financial blueprints; that isn’t blindsided by party in-fighting; that isn’t lost amid an inhumane obsession to kick desperate families and individuals to an arbitrary African country.

Because if it isn’t, then the country won’t reach its full potential.

And neither, by extension, will the North East.

March 20, 2024

  • Ideas & Observations

Created by Steven Hugill