It would be easy to interpret Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s explanation for recent announcements that government departments are to move to Darlington as party political bias. Easy but wrong.
The Treasury, the Department for International Trade and Mr Kwarteng’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are all to get bases in the Tees Valley town.
On a visit there this week Mr Kwarteng told the Northern Echo of the importance of bringing civil servants out of Whitehall in order to improve the quality of decision making. He then added: ‘Also in Darlington you’ve got, and let me say this very clearly, very, very strong local leadership.”
He praised the Conservative leader of Darlington council, the Conservative MP and the Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, who was recently re-elected with 73 per cent of the vote. ‘His tremendous majority is not only an endorsement of what he is doing but it really shows, I think, that the local team are the right people to deliver.’
That seems like pretty clear political bias, and there is no doubt that Kwarteng was displaying political support for Houchen and his Tory colleagues. But his line of argument was not directly from Conservative politicians to good decision-making and thence to civil service relocation, but from strong local leadership to those things.
There is a lesson there for the North East. It does not have to vote Tory in order to win government support for levelling up, but it does need strong, united local leadership, which is just what it lacks. The area’s seven councils should start by re-uniting and doing a devolution deal.