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Johnson’s man in the north

Johnson’s man in the north


The government has hinged its success on its ability to “level up” the country. A mayor and former rugby player provides the blueprint for how the Tories can do it.

claudia williams, narrating:

Hi I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, a mayor’s mission – and what that tells us about one of the government’s flagship policies. 

“The restaurants that you love to eat in? Ok, well, first of all: Muse in Yarm. I used to be the councillor there and obviously I live in Yarm and it’s a beautiful restaurant, so I tend to go there with my wife a lot…”

Ben Houchen interview

This is Ben Houchen.

You might not have heard of him – most people haven’t. 

He was once set to play rugby for England, before an injury. 

But in 2017 he made history by becoming the first directly-elected mayor of Tees Valley, representing almost 700,000 people in the five boroughs of Darlington, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, and Redcar & Cleveland. 

It’s quite a job – and one he’s considered to have done well.

“Boris Johnson is allegedly obsessed with him, according to his aides. And he was returned as Tees Valley mayor in May this year with a whopping majority of 70 per cent of the vote. That in a traditionally Labour area.”

Times Radio

But more than that: what matters, perhaps most of all, is what he represents – this week more than any other. 

A staunch supporter of Boris Johnson, his was the first big, crucial win for the Conservatives in the so-called “Red Wall”: historically pro-Labour areas which turned in favour of the Tories in 2019. 

He also represents one of the prime minister’s central pledges at that electionto level-up the country. An opportunity for left-behind regions to secure critical cash and power from central government.

The levelling up secretary Michael Gove has just published 400 pages fleshing out what it means… and it begins by heaping praise on Ben Houchen.  

So what does his apparent success tell us about the government’s plan to level-up? 

In 2016, new legislation introduced an elected mayor for Tees Valley, and in 2017 Conservative candidate, Ben Houchen, won a thumping majority: 

“I feel excited, I feel elated, but I always feel an immense, heavy sense of responsibility on my shoulders. But it’s something I wear with pride having been born and grown up in the Tees Valley.”

Ben Houchen

My colleague Lara Spirit is a reporter at Tortoise.

We often think of the “Red Wall”, traditionally Labour-voting seats now held by the Conservatives, as crumbing in the 2019 general election. But Ben Houchen got in early – in 2017. His victory was a proper electoral shock and a harbinger of things to come two years later.

“He’s the kind of figure Conservatives in Westminster are keen to prove can be part of their tribe. And he’s considered to have done a very good job, driving investment to the region and running projects successfully.”

Lara Spirit

“The Budget is still going on in the background but I just couldn’t wait. Because Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, has just announced two amazing, amazing projects for Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool. The first – and one I feel will be absolutely transformational – not this week, not just next week but for years and years to come…and that is a Teesside freeport.”

Ben Houchen

A freeport is an economic zone within the UK’s borders that benefits from things like tax breaks, different customs rates and looser planning restrictions. 

“Other successes include £52m for a carbon capture project, and Rishi Sunak’s decision to choose Darlington – near his own constituency – as the site for the Treasury’s future ‘Northern Economic Campus’. He’s renationalised the airport, with the number of flights steadily increasing; and there’s a new wind turbine factory on the horizon, too. But he plans to go even further, pledging 25,000 new jobs in the next four years –which is pretty astonishing.

“All of this went some way to helping the Conservatives win the Hartlepool by-election last year, which had been Labour since its creation in the 1970s.”

Lara Spirit

It’s areas like that which the government has in mind as it publishes its new plan for levelling-up.

In the first paragraph, it pays tribute to “Mayor Ben Houchen’s inspirational leadership” and puts devolution at the heart of its strategy.

It had become a bit of a hobby in Westminster to follow any mention of levelling-up with “whatever that means” – but now we have some idea.

“After two long Covid years we need to get this country moving at top speed again. We need faster growth, quicker public services and higher wages. And we need to allow overlooked and undervalued communities to take back control of their destinies.”

Michael Gove

The White Paper promises that every part of England can have powers like Tees Valley’s mayor. It’s one of the 12 “missions” it sets out, or what we used to call targets.

They include big promises: pay, employment and productivity will rise in every area of the UK; 90 per cent of primary school children will achieve expected standards in reading, writing and maths; wellbeing will improve in every area of the UK; life expectancy will rise by five years by 2035. 

And you’d expect bold pledges like that to be matched with funding, but it’s not yet clear whether they will be.

“We know for example – if you take transport – £882 a head by the latest figures goes in London. Less than half that – £315 a head – goes to the northeast. We know that the National Infrastructure Commission says – and I quote – ‘current commitments may not be sufficient to deliver levelling up.’”

Nick Robinson, Today Programme

With a string of allegations against the prime minister about parties in Downing Street during lockdown, and in the crucial moment when he was most in need of support, Ben Houchen rowed in behind him.

He wrote in the Times that Boris Johnson was a leader with “energy, empathy and, above all, the will and the ability to deliver real things for areas like mine and the rest of the north”.

So for the prime minister, delivering on his commitment to level-up the country, will be crucial in maintaining that support.

Today’s story was written by Lara Spirit and produced by Xavier Greenwood.