Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
There is a theory that political moves outside the playbook get panned because those commenting on them do not really understand what’s happening. This was the case when the Prime Minister booted out the Brexit rebels in 2019. I’ve got a funny feeling that it might be the case with his ‘levelling up’ speech too.
After doing the Today programme on Radio 4 – fourteen hours and various outlets throughout the day later – I had buckled to pleas from CCHQ to also do Newsnight. On with me was Steve Reed MP, the Shadow Local Government Secretary. He loomed large over my left shoulder as he was beamed in ‘down the line’ from somewhere with an odd green glow. The group-think from the bubble was that there was “nothing in the speech” – which was the line Mr Reed took. But the more he spoke, the more it dawned on me that he had either not watched or read the speech, or simply not understood it
The previous “devolution” agenda – based around “City regions” – has worked well for some, but not for the rest of us. They’re not what we’ve been after, and have been a huge sticking point. Government used to say: “accept the big agglomeration or you get nothing”. That all changed on Thursday.
The one thing that almost everyone in County Durham had opposed was being lumped in with six other local authorities. This would have created a mayoral area that spread over 100 miles from Berwick-Upon-Tweed to beyond Barnard Castle. A vast region – but that local people knew it would nonetheless have ended up with a narrow focus on the metropolitan centre of Tyne and Wear.
The Prime Minister’s speech did one thing that the bubble seem not to hear. He was speaking to those concerned, those who understood. Yes, we need to see some detail in the White Paper later this year, but the promise is clear. I know it appeals in County Durham and knowing that, that it is likely that it will appeal to other non-metropolitan parts of the country too.
And he’s looking to build on success. If you had asked 90 per cent of people in ‘the bubble’ where Teesside was a few years ago, then you might have as well asked a monkey to throw a dart at a map. Now, thanks to Ben Houchen – a man driven by the place and its people – that has changed. Only four years in office, he not only speaks for the Tees Valley, but the bubble listens.
“Levelling Up” is not focused on the city centres – central London, for example, or central Manchester. It is about the counties, sub regions, smaller cities and towns feeling that they are getting a fair deal. And the truth is that in many of these places there hasn’t been someone either willing or able to be a driver of change. Frankly, too often, there has been parochial bureaucratic resistance.
Teesside would never have worked if it had been led by a committee of local authority leaders, or by a party with councillors fighting for their individual patches or wards. Local leadership needs to be able to represent a county or area, uniting those who are culturally and economically intertwined for greater gain.
Too often Government attempts to improve local places have become bogged down with opposition not from local people, but from local administrations. It’s clear that the levelling-up White Paper will need a stick to help prod sometimes reluctant individuals in local authorities in the right direction. We don’t have forever and it needs to be done.
I’ll bet that the Prime Minister and his levelling up supremo – Huddersfield-born Neil O’Brien, late of this parish – understand what they’re driving for. The bubble may only understand the large metro-centres, but there’s clearly something more going on. After all, the Prime Minister won these places and their people over – and clearly remains set on doing so again.