North East Devolution and Levelling Up
Penshaw Monument

Tory election fears threaten North East levelling up

Recent byelection defeats for the government are putting the wind up the Tories, and north of England regions like the North East could pay the price in terms of levelling up.

Conservatives are worried that if the idea gets around in their southern heartlands that their taxes are being used to bale out left-behind parts of the north and Midlands their party could suffer a backlash at the next general election.

These fears have been heightened by the result of the Tiverton & Honiton by-election in Devon on June 23, when an apparently safe Tory seat was lost to the Liberal Democrats.

Of course there were many issues behind that defeat, including party-gate, MP misconduct and the cost  of living. But the perception that levelling up benefits regions like the North East at the expense of taxpayers in those like the South West doubtless played a part.

The theme is taken up today by two media commentators. The deputy mayor of Middlesbrough, Councillor Mieke Smiles, writing on the ConservativeHome website, refers to a recent broadcast she had listened to about the Tiverton & Honiton result.

The presenter, writes Councillor Smiles, ‘said that the result shouldn’t be that surprising as it’s an area where people are becoming increasingly frustrated, wondering how to secure GP appointments and why schools aren’t being invested in.

‘In short what did levelling up…mean for them?

‘With a General Election slowly but surely approaching,’ writes the deputy mayor, ‘this struck my heart with fear. What of the seemingly countless Tiverton & Honiton-type areas with a similar outlook?’

Her fear, it should be said, appeared to be not just of a Tory election defeat but also of the potential transfer of funding from places like Middlesbrough to Conservative areas like Tiverton & Honiton in a bid to avoid defeat.

Councillor Smiles makes the argument that levelling up places like Middlesbrough will benefit the whole country, including areas like Tiverton & Honiton, by boosting the economy and helping to cut taxes. And that is indeed one of the logics of the policy, alongside social justice.

Levelling up, writes Councillor Smiles, ‘is not about throwing caution to the wind with government budgets and sending cash fluttering up to the North East – but about investing to save in an intelligent and diligent manner.’

A similar case is made by Rakib Ehsan, of the Centre for Social Justice, writing in The Critic magazine under the headline ‘It’s grim down south’, focusing particularly on the South West, a region that ranks quite highly in many economic and quality-of-life tables.

‘{L]eft-behind communities in rural southern England have not been given the attention they deserve under the levelling up agenda,’ he writes. ‘While the Conservatives have focused on so-called “red wall” constituencies in England’s former Labour heartlands, they have neglected many traditional Tory-voting communities — especially in the predominantly rural South West region — which are anything but southern English hubs of thriving affluence.

‘Southern England’ adds Rakib Ehsan ‘is anything but a monolithic oasis of broad-based prosperity — there are enough materially-deprived communities with minimal civic assets in the South West region that prove it is a myth.’

‘Much like how the modern-day Labour Party took voters for granted in its post-industrial and provincial heartlands in northern England and the Midlands, the Conservatives are at risk of losing traditional Tory voters in leave-voting rural communities across South West England,’ he concludes. ‘

‘If the current government is genuinely serious about tackling regional inequality and levelling-up our country, it will devote more energy and resources into creating greater opportunities in South West England’s left-behind communities.’

None of this will be new to readers of this website. We made similar points in December following the North Shropshire by-election and as long ago as June last year in light of the Chesham & Amersham ballot.

Indeed, the Conservative Party manifesto 2019 made clear that levelling up was for every part of the country. And that is what has happened as funds like the Levelling Up Fund have been distributed throughout the UK – in London and the South West as well as regions like the North East which are usually thought of as the principal beneficiaries of such policies.

As Conservative Party election prospects appear to grow more and more precarious so do the North East’s hopes of being allocated a greater share of funding for levelling up. It would help, though, if the region agreed the new, expanded devolution deal that the government is offering.