North East Devolution and Levelling Up

What’s the point of spending millions sprucing up the Tyne Bridge?

The question headlined above is not meant to imply that there is no point in carrying out essential maintenance on the Tyne Bridge, but that there is confusion over just what that point is.

Is it economic-utilitarian or is it psychological-celebratory? Is the purpose to maintain and perhaps enhance a vital transport link, or is it to maximise local pride in a regional engineering icon and make Geordies feel good about themselves?

This is not a question confined to the Tyne Bridge project. It goes to the heart of what levelling up means. Will the North East be levelled up when its metrics such as unemployment and life expectancy are raised to the national average? Or will lifting our spirits do the job?

Actually, both approaches are necessary and both were alluded to by Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, when she raised the Tyne Bridge’s state of repair in the Commons this week.

On June 23 Ms Onwurah spoke lyrically and at length in the House about the history and beauty of the bridge, which will see its centenary in 2028, and how it was a source of pride for local people. More prosaically, she referred to the fact that it is used by more than 70,000 vehicles per day.

In a question the following day Ms Onwurah was more concise but still referred to both the bridge’s iconic and transportational values: ‘As well as being a great icon of North East people, culture and engineering, the Tyne Bridge is an essential part of our transport infrastructure and it is in a dire state’, she told Andrew Stephenson, a minister in the Department for Transport.

Ms Onwurah did not get an answer on funding for the bridge on either occasion. That will have to wait until the autumn at least.  

This dual role of the bridge in North East life is reflected in the fact that local politicians have submitted not one but two bids for funding to repair and repaint the bridge in time for its centenary.

Transport for the North is asking the Department for Transport for £36m of major road network funding for the bridge and approach roads, while most of the North East’s local authorities are simultaneously asking for £18m from the Levelling Up Fund (LUF). The £36m bid is clearly linked to economic-utilitarian purposes while the £18m bid suggests a more psychological-celebratory approach.

So important is the bridge as a transport link that it can hardly be allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair as to be unusable. But the government may calculate that £18m will do the job at half the price while still raising local spirits and serving as the basis for a political claim that levelling up is working. Expect a fanfare announcement in the autumn that the LUF bid has been successful, while the £36m bid for major road funding quietly disappears from view.