North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Why the Chesham and Amersham by-election result matters for the North East

Which North East parliamentary constituencies are the Tories targeting next, after gaining seven from Labour in the 2019 general election and another in a by-election this year? And what will the answer mean for levelling up?

‘Most of them’ is the answer to the first question, if an article by Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Tynedale and Ponteland, on the conservativehome website is anything to go by.

The answer to the second question, what this will mean for levelling up, is less straightforward, as a piece by Opperman’s fellow North East Tory MP Richard Holden (North West Durham), also writing on conservativehome, makes clear.

One the basis of an analysis of the 2019 general election, last month’s council election results, as well as Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s landslide re-election and the Hartlepool by-election the same day, Opperman, who is Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, discusses his party’s future prospects in the North East,

There are opportunities to go even further than the successes so far, Opperman writes, and it is quicker to list the Labour constituencies he does NOT name as vulnerable to the Conservatives than to detail those he does: Gateshead, Jarrow, South Shields and the three in Newcastle.

How are these seats to be won by the Conservatives? Based on talking to people throughout the north of England, Opperman’s answer is:

‘Most of all, people wanted proper representation, with local champions fighting for better investment in schools and hospitals, improved public transport, and more job opportunities. That is exactly what the government under Boris Johnson is doing. Key symbols of this that matter: like the relocation of part of the Treasury to Darlington, which will open up a world of opportunities for local young people and play its part in ending the ‘London Centric’ culture that has existed for far too long’.

So, levelling up means improved local services with a hint, in the words ‘proper representation’ and the reference to London-centric culture, of the war the government is waging against ‘woke’ culture, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, ‘aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)’.

The North East can therefore presumably hope for more local investment in visible regeneration, though not necessarily in the day-to-day council services like social care that it also needs. However, the North East was already at a disadvantage compared with Tees Valley as a result of having rejected a devolution deal in 2016 and splitting in two and now faces fresh competition for finite levelling up resources following last week’s Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Opperman’s article was published on June 20 and probably written before the result in Chesham and Amersham, where the Conservatives lost a previously safe seat in leafy Buckinghamshire to the Liberal Democrats, had been digested. That is is not to suggest that Chesham and Amersham is in particular need of levelling up, but the by-election does put a fresh complexion on the party political calculus and on the levelling up agenda too, as Richard Holden’s piece published on June 21 makes clear. The talk in Tory circles now is of the danger posed to the government by opposition mainly in the south of England to its proposals for planning reforms, which are seen as a threat to the green belt.

Levelling up is now talked of as for everyone, everywhere, not just left-behind areas of the north and Midlands. As Holden writes: ‘[L]evelling up is an agenda for everyone because it’s explicitly not about taking from one to give to another. The clue is in the name: it’s about ensuring the provision across the country is there to meet the talents of our people. It’s as relevant to the lad in Ashford [Kent] as it is for the girl in Ashington [Northumberland]. Both want good further education provision, a good job, in time a home of their own for them and their family, good transport and broadband connectivity’.

People in the North East along with those in other parts of the north and Midlands may, understandably, have believed that levelling up was all about them – about enabling them to catch up with the prosperity enjoyed in the south of England. The Conservative Party Manifesto in 2019, to be fair, spoke of levelling up every part of the UK, but the emphasis is shifting. The Tories are now worrying about their traditional southern ‘Blue Wall’ as well as their new formerly ‘Red Wall’ seats seized from Labour.

Chesham and Amersham brings that shift to the fore. What it means in practice is that for party political reasons the north and Midlands will from now on face increased competition for finite resources from Conservative areas of the south perceived to be at risk of defecting from their traditional Tory home. This may be pork-barrel politics, but it’s a fact of political life.

James Forsyth, the conservative commentator and political editor of The Spectator, warns that a Home Counties rebellion is brewing. He writes that the Chesham and Amersham result ‘sparked a panic among Tories sitting for similar seats’.

‘You can’t overstate the rage of southern MPs at the moment,’ says one ‘blue wall’ Tory quoted by Forsyth. ‘Whatever their gripe is, it is why we lost Chesham and Amersham.’ According to Forsyth, there is a view among southern Conservatives that northern seats have been getting No. 10’s attention because their MPs shout louder. One speculates that they need ‘a southern version of Jake Berry’, the pugnacious leader of the Northern Research Group.

In the face of this, the best the North East can do between now and the next general election, scheduled for 2024, is put itself in a position to get the most it can out of whatever levelling up investment the government chooses to make available. That is all the more reason for the seven councils which made up the North East Combined Authority (NECA) until 2016 when they rejected a devolution deal and split the Tyneside economy down the line of the river, to reunite and do a new NECA deal as soon as possible. The onus is on Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham (unless the last of these decides to go it alone) to re-join their colleagues in the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) – Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – and reverse the error they made five years ago. It is an unexpected outcome of a by-election in Buckinghamshire.