Sunderland used to have a proper Town Hall, built of stone with a magnificent clock tower, opened in 1890 and demolished in 1971 at the behest of the then Conservative council.
The Town Hall was replaced by a brutalist Civic Centre, designed by Basil Spence, winner of a gold award from the Royal Institute of British Architects, opened by Princess Margaret in 1970 and in the last few months demolished.
That in turn has been replaced by a new City Hall, consisting of two office blocks of surpassing blandness which belong to Legal & General, for which the council pays rent.
“It’s awful,” Councillor Pam Mann said. “We hate it.”
She pointed at the ceiling, which offers glimpses of smooth concrete behind tilted panels. “To us it’s just unfinished,” she remarked.
Mann also objects to the transgender toilets in the new building: “I’m very female and I like a powder room.”
She was one of three UKIP councillors elected to Sunderland City Council in 2019, and two years later, as UKIP declined into insignificance, joined the Conservatives: “I’ve gone from Right to Right,” she said. “I haven’t gone from Right to Stupid.”
She ran for office because she felt “so let down by our three MPs [all Labour] who did everything they could to reverse” the EU Referendum, in which the early news that Sunderland had voted Leave by a large margin showed which way the national result would go.
She also felt let down by the City Council, which has for many years been in Labour hands, and thought: “I can do better.” Her daughter, aged 23, for whom she is the main carer, suffers from Ohdo Syndrome, a rare condition which requires 24-hour care.
In Sunderland, as in Leicester, visited two weeks ago by ConHome, one gets the feeling that the rebellion against Labour has some way still to run, and the local Labour Establishment has no real idea how to respond.
Mann’s colleague Councillor Mike Hartnack, a former marine engineer with Blue Star Line who served as a senior police officer, said of Labour: “They turned their back on the shipbuilding industry. They destroyed the town centre.”
But Hartnack, a member of the council since 2021, said that though he came into politics “thinking and believing I could significantly influence change within Sunderland”, he has since concluded that even Labour, with a majority of councillors, is dominated by the council officers, who “ride roughshod” over attempts at scrutiny.
Mann said there is “real hatred” of Labour on social media, “a lot of real, real nastiness, personal nastiness”.
She wants these haters to “use the energy you’re spending on this hatred and do something positive with it”, i.e. convert to the Conservatives.
On Monday afternoon, Mann, who is up for re-election this year in St Anne’s ward, went canvassing in Greenbank Drive (see the photograph of her above), a quiet residential road with immaculate front gardens and distant views across the A19 and the River Wear to the vast Nissan factory, brought to Sunderland by Margaret Thatcher.
The first man to answer the door said in a friendly tone: “I think the Conservatives have run out of ideas a bit now.”
Mann is fighting the election on local issues: “I work for the local voters. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the boss. You need someone who does the work really well at the local level.”
The voter thought the minds of national politicians “have been poisoned with so much looking after themselves”.
Mann mentioned two nearby roads which have been resurfaced, and elicited a turn towards local affairs. “That’s good,” the man said. “I was on about those yellow lines to people years ago. It was an accident waiting to happen.”
The woman at the next house said, more encouragingly: “Hello Pam, nice to meet you and I’ll vote for you.”
At a house with a sign in the front porch which said, “In a world where you can be anything…be kind”, the door was answered by a man who remarked with a smile, “I’ve lived here 55 years and you’re the first councillor who’s been round. We’ve never ever had anyone at a general election either.”
Many people had already returned their postal votes, but he had not yet made his mind up: “I am interested in politics to an extent but I don’t let it take over my life.”
Mann observed that he was “not voting for Keir Starmer, or Rishi Sunak, or Boris Johnson”, at which point the old man’s face lit up and he said: “Ah, he was interesting!”
A moment later he added: “An absolute fool!”
We had passed, on the corner, a house with a Labour poster in the window. Mann said it belongs to Alison Smith, this year’s Mayor of Sunderland, who is “absolutely wonderful”, and decided on impulse to ring the bell.
The Mayor was out, but Mann was able to talk to her son, Ian, and to tell him, “You looked fabulous at the Mayor’s Ball,” where he had worn “a beautiful tuxedo and a fabulous embroidered waistcoat”.
Politics is so often written up as a battle that friendships between people from opposing parties tend to get overlooked.
Mann explained her own outlook: “It’s like you like red wine, I like white wine, I’m not going to tell you to drink what I like.”
She had to go and pick up her daughter from Bede College, so handed ConHome over to Councillor Dominic McDonough, standing in St Chad’s ward, and his colleague in that ward, Councillor Simon Ayre (each ward has three councillors of whom one is up for re-election this year).
We set off along Hillview and up Hillcrest, calling on residents who have previously voted Conservative. Ayre, a former NHS nurse, said “St Chad’s was a real marginal” but they have “managed to build it up” by concentrating on “the unsexy stuff that people care about”, which are “dog shit, potholes and parking”.
The council’s record on potholes came in for severe criticism: “They might just as well fill them with custard.”
So did the way one house in the road has lain empty and become a rat-infested eyesore.
Ayre said that to be seen to be trying, “the fact that you’ve got off your rear end” and are attempting to deal with these intractable problems, “goes a long way”. He reckons Labour have been in power for so long in Sunderland they have succumbed to a sense of “entitlement” and do not realise how hard they should be working.
“Sort out the fly-tipping,” one man who turned out to have several things on his mind said to McDonough.
“Well we’ve got the camera,” McDonough said.
“It’s not stopping it.”
“I’ll have a word with the police,” McDonough said.
“Why reduce the speed limit to 20 mph?”
“We had a petition with 600 parents. If it saves one life…” McDonough said.
“Well get rid of the bus lane then.”
“I agree,” McDonough said.
One woman said had already cast her postal vote for McDonough, but when the general election comes round she will vote Labour, as she likes her MP, Bridget Phillipson, “and I think to vote for anyone else is a wasted vote”.
Ayre asked her: “If we had a candidate who was Sunderland born and bred, would that change anything? Would it make you look into it a little bit further?”
She said it would. Local activists, hearing such preferences from local voters, are convinced that local parliamentary candidates would do better than figures thrust on them from afar by CCHQ.
The Conservatives currently have 15 councillors in Sunderland, the Lib Dems 14, Reform UK one (elected as a Conservative) and there are two Independents.
Labour has 43 of the 75 councillors, so would only have to lose six next Thursday to slip below the 38 needed to keep overall control.
The Conservatives are anxious to stay ahead of the Lib Dems, but acknowledge that the latter “campaign non-stop”, and “once they get in, they’re a nightmare to get out”.
Voters in Sunderland have a choice between expressing local discontent with Labour, and national discontent with the Conservatives. Can excellent local Tory candidates thrive despite adverse polls? Some at least of them certainly will.
But one gets a general sense that the city of Sunderland (as it became in 1992) has not been as well governed as it should have been in the half century since the demolition of the Town Hall, and that no one quite knows what to do about this.
For no one has yet recaptured the ebullient Victorian self-confidence needed to rebuild the Town Hall.