North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Ben warns Boris…again

For the second time in four months Tees Valley’s Tory Mayor, Ben Houchen, has issued a stark warning to Prime Minister Boris Johnson: ‘Make progress on levelling up or risk the next election’.

Houchen writes in today’s Times Red Box [pay wall], according to a report in The Times newspaper, that the Prime Minister ‘must make it his New Year’s resolution to redouble and refocus the government’s work to level up the United Kingdom’.

Houchen adds: ‘It’s time for the Prime Minister to focus, remember what got him elected two years ago and what the British people need to see him return as Prime Minister at the next election’.

He also writes: ‘The government’s pledges to tackle the problems faced by left-behind towns and to ensure that people can see opportunities in their own towns may have been forgotten by some of those gripped by the daily 24-hour news cycle. But those who backed Boris in 2019 have not forgotten’.

In an extract in today’s Northern Agenda, Houchen says: ‘In Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool, people are still looking expectantly to the government to ramp-up delivery of the Treasury Campus in Darlington, which offer the prospect of Civil Service careers without needing to leave the communities people love and call home.’

He adds: “Before the next election comes around people need to see with their eyes concrete evidence that they were right to back this government. Voters are also realists – they know that levelling up is not something that will be delivered in just a year or two, it will be a decades long project.

“But they do need to see progress, and this means steel going up to deliver new factories, spades in the ground for new energy infrastructure, and cranes in action as new bridges are built out over waters’.

According to a report in TeessideLive, Houchen says: ‘[Voters] will be looking forward – and looking for proof that they were right to back him [Johnson] and this government to deliver a better life for them and their families’.

Also today, asked about Houchen’s comments on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said his budget for levelling up was ‘significantly increased at the last government spending review [in the autumn], and the commitment to public spending was ‘higher than any government… in history’.

But while he insisted the cash was there for more projects, the long-term plan was then to lower taxes. He told Today: ‘There are choices that do need to be made. But, ultimately, we’ve made those choices. We’ve committed to the public spending required in order to generate economic growth, and as we will in due course get that economic growth, we will also in due course cut taxes’.

This was the second time in four months that Houchen had spoken out to warn Johnson and the government that it must deliver on its 2019 election pledge to level up economically lagging areas like Tees Valley. As this website reported on September 23, Houchen told The Sun:

‘If we don’t start levelling up and put some superchargers under it pretty quickly — if there is nothing people can tangibly see at the next election — then in places like Teesside it will go back to that same old belief of, ‘You can never trust a Tory’ and they will vote for somebody else’.  


Today’s Times, in a leader, plausibly see Houchen’s comments in the context of a collision of two competing wings of the coalition that Johnson put together to fight and win the Brexit referendum.

On one side are those who see the prospect of Brexit leading to increased government spending and a more interventionist state, as held out by the Vote Leave campaign and exemplified in the promise of more spending on the NHS. This was the vision that helped the Conservatives win ‘red wall’ seats in regions like the North East from Labour.

On the other side, says The Times, is the longstanding goal of Tory Brexiteers, largely suppressed during the referendum campaign, to restrict employment protections and lower agricultural standards.

The way this debate has gone so far, and the outcome of the Autumn 2021 Budget and Spending Review, are consistent with the calculation made by this website on January 3, that the best the North East can hope for by way of levelling up funding from all sources by the end of the current parliament in 2024 is to be receiving around £237m a year, which is less than the £271m that the One North East, the regional development agency, was investing annually in the first decade of this century.

Michael Gove’s interview strategy for the Today programme seemed to be talk up the value of government spending already announced and committed to while promising tax cuts in due course, all paid for by economic growth. It was an attempt to please everyone.

But as The Times comments: ‘Without increased financial resources, along with the accountability to ensure money is well spent, devolution is unlikely to have the kind of impact Mr Houchen is seeking. No wonder Mr Houchen is worried’.