I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Government’s levelling up agenda and Tees Valley.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—for the first time, I believe, Mrs Cummins. It is good to see so many people interested in our debate this afternoon, particularly my neighbouring MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill).
We have all grown weary of hearing about how unprecedented these times are, so I hope Members will indulge me in a short trip down memory lane. Nearly 10 years ago, I spoke in a near-identical Westminster Hall debate on the topic of regional development in the north-east. I said:
“We wait to see whether there will be a Budget for real growth, backed by substantial resources when the Chancellor stands up tomorrow. Resources must be the key. A jobless recovery would be a disaster for our region, and without growth there will not be enough new jobs… I hope that they have finally realised that without a genuine plan for growth and real resources, the economy will continue to be sluggish.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 525, c. 223-224WH.]
Well, the Government’s buzzwords may have changed, but after a decade, what strikes me is just how precedented and familiar this situation is. A scene of long-term under- funding of the Tees Valley has meant that unemployment there is still far higher than the national average. Health inequalities have widened, and the number of families in poverty has increased. Unless the Government take serious action soon, we will once again be in the dire situation where our communities are made to pay the price of a Tory Government’s failings.
The toxic combination of Brexit, the pandemic, and Tory incompetence has been catastrophic for our area. Last month it was announced that the UK unemployment rate has surged to its highest level in over three years, now at 4.5%. In the north-east, the unemployment rate has soared to 6.6%—the worst in the UK. The region now has the highest unemployment rate, the lowest employment rate and the lowest average hours worked of all British regions. The Chancellor said this afternoon that an economic emergency had “only just begun”. Well, tell that to our constituents, whose economy has been neglected for the last decade. The numbers have been getting worse for years in our region, since long before the pandemic, as a result of Tory neglect.
At the end of his announcement, the Chancellor dangled a new twinkling pot of money in front of our noses: a levelling-up fund. But we do not need more wasteful bidding processes that pit deprived communities against each other for scraps. Now more than ever, we need a serious and concerted effort to bring the Tees Valley in line with the rest of the UK. You do not have to take just my word for it, Mrs Cummins. WPI Strategy has created the levelling-up index, and in its analysis, six of the seven Tees constituencies are marked as priorities. Middlesbrough is the constituency second most in need of levelling up in the whole of the UK, with Hartlepool sixth. My constituency of Stockton North comes in 14th. In six out of seven of the Tees constituencies, deprivation soars above the national average, climbing to 50% above the UK average in Redcar, 52% in Stockton North, and a startling 110% in Middlesbrough.
For the Tees Valley, levelling up means job creation, and I welcome today’s news of a new power plant to be built at the port. However, while the unemployment benefit claimant rate across the UK is 6.3%, across the Tees Valley it is 8%, and it rises as high as 12% in Middlesbrough. There have been 12,565 extra jobs lost since March across the Tees Valley, and we are haemorrhaging more each day. Last week OSB, a major monopile supplier in my constituency that has been active in offshore wind since 2015, announced that it is closing down at the end of the month because it has not got enough orders. This is happening while the biggest wind farm in the world, Dogger Bank, is being constructed in British territorial waters. What benefit is that bringing to the Tees Valley? Just last week, on the eve of the Prime Minister’s green economy announcement, news came that all—yes, all—the monopiles and transition pieces for Dogger Bank wind farm will be manufactured in Holland and Belgium.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that public procurement rules can change only after Brexit? This is a very good example of why the decision that he described moments ago as toxic, and which his own constituents overwhelmingly supported, was of course the right one.
Can we just nail this business about state aid? It was pleaded for in Redcar. We can do that. This is a critically important point: the Tory Government decided that they would sit on their hands and let 9,000 jobs go down the pan. Do not kid me that suddenly there will be this conversion to intervention in our economy—that is absolute nonsense. The French did it; the Germans did it; the Italians did it; and the British Government sat on their hands, and we lost jobs.
My hon. Friend does not need an answer from me on that point. Why has our area lost out? Where was the Tees Tory Mayor when the orders were being handed out? He was nowhere to be seen.
No doubt some will claim that jobs have been boosted in the area, but it is going to take a few more media pictures of the Mayor in a hard hat to convince me of that. The cost per job created in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area is calculated at £96,093. That means that for every job created in the last three years, the Mayor has spent nearly a hundred grand. How on earth is an approach like that going to deliver the sustainable job growth our region so desperately needs? The figures are astronomical. We urgently need a fully independent audit of exactly where the millions of pounds of taxpayer money have gone.
I will not at the moment. Even if we put aside the costs, the number of jobs that have been announced barely scrape the sides of the black hole of unemployment in the Tees Valley. For every job announced in the last three years, five have been lost in the last seven months. Sadly, we cannot even get the Mayor to tell us whether those jobs are being filled, or even where they are.
The Tees Valley’s gross value added per hour worked, an indicator of productivity, continues to lag 9.1% behind the UK average. On top of that, research by iwoca has shown that businesses in the north-east have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. As a result, the region is forecast to lose 11.7% gross value added in 2020. That will wipe out all the economic growth in the north-east since 2004. We will be back to where we were 16 years ago.
Opportunities presented by the possibilities of carbon capture and storage, a freeport and civil service relocation may be part of the answer, but they are simply not enough. I welcome incentivising businesses to come to the Tees Valley, but it will not be much comfort to local businesses that fall outside the free port area and are anxious about the potential loss of EU trade and new tariffs.
This is not just about jobs. While I am all for planning for the Tees Valley’s future, the impact of Brexit and the pandemic is felt by our communities now. A 10-year plan is no good to my constituents, who contact me worried about how they are going to pay their bills this month. Last month, statistics released by the End Child Poverty coalition showed that the north-east has seen the biggest rise in child poverty in the UK. In my constituency, the proportion of children living in poverty has risen to 34%; in others in the Tees Valley, the figure is higher still. It is a tragedy and a scandal.
In Stockton North, 3,109 families with children received universal credit in May 2020, and 1,700 families with children received working tax credit. Behind those numbers, there are thousands of living, breathing children, plunged below the breadline as a result of having poorly paid jobs—or no jobs at all in their family. I am deeply disappointed that today the Chancellor has not listened to calls to retain the increases in universal credit and working tax credit, so that families with children could keep that small but vital economic support. Across the Tees Valley, 79,000 families are affected. This is a Government who would rather spend millions on the festival of Brexit than bring children out of poverty by retaining even small benefit increases, or than feed them during all school holidays. This is not levelling up; it is grinding down.
We all know that where economic inequality thrives, so do health inequalities. Stockton-on-Tees is often used as a case study to highlight health inequalities in the UK. Men who live in the town centre are expected to live 18 years fewer than their peers just a couple of miles down the road. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Tory Ministers promise to tackle these worrying inequalities, but nothing has happened. The people of Stockton were promised a new hospital building, but 10 years later, it is yet to materialise. We just get occasional scraps that do nothing to plug the gap.
The Health Secretary visited the University Hospital of North Tees recently. I prayed he was going to announce its replacement, as I knew a statement was coming up within a few days. The statement came, but North Tees was not on the Health Secretary’s list. Surely any commitment to levelling up the Tees Valley must have addressing health inequalities at the core of its mission, and a new hospital has a major role to play in that.
A proper levelling-up agenda would be such a boon for Teessiders, but while the Tories claim that that agenda is already under way in the Tees Valley, there are serious obstacles that will prevent its delivery. Just last week, the think-tank Demos published a new report, “Achieving Levelling-Up: The Structures and Processes Needed”. It concludes that while levelling up is possible,
“there is zero chance of achieving it without…changes to the current system” of devolved politics. One barrier it identifies is that the work of local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities is largely invisible, making real accountability to the public impossible.
The situation in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area is much more concerning than that, because the Tory Administration are not just invisible in terms of accountability, but are actively obstructing proper scrutiny. The Mayor has created a web of different companies and organisations through which he spends public money, but is shielded from vital public scrutiny. There are even reports that donors to his campaign have been appointed to significant positions in those companies and organisations. Decisions are often made outside formal meetings, through a complex network of political and business relationships and friendships, informed by advice from expensive consultants.
I will not at the moment. This is a chumocracy on a local scale that mirrors the widespread and despicable cronyism we have seen play out on the national stage in the Government’s constant privatisation of the response to the pandemic. It is shameful cronyism that I am worried will bear more fruit in the administration of any Tory levelling-up fund. If the management of the £3.6 billion towns fund is anything to go by, we have serious reason for concern. Billingham, in my constituency, was deemed more in need of support than towns in Tory MPs’ patches, including a town in the Secretary of State’s constituency, which was 270th on the list, but Billingham missed out and the Secretary of State’s constituency did not.
It is clear from the Chancellor’s announcement today that the Government are not going to invest the money that the Tees Valley needs to overcome the destabilising impact of Brexit and the pandemic on our communities and industries. While he splurges on whizzy defence gadgets and Brexit festival guff, public sector pay and benefits are largely frozen. These freezes will actively discourage the growth that we need in the Tees Valley, and they will level down, not up.
Locally, the Tory combined authority is the one public body in the Tees Valley with money to spend, but despite that, there is no comprehensive support package for our constituents. Instead, there is the £1 million Houchen gate—£1 million of taxpayers’ money that could have done so much good, wasted on a gate. The Mayor bought the loss-making airport for about £80 million, but he has secured a few flights; some people will be grateful for that. I heard one person say today, “What use is it being able to get on a flight to Alicante when local people still can’t get a bus home after 7pm?”.
Clearly, the Labour party opposed the rescue of Teesside international airport; it is probably the only example I can recall of the Labour party opposing taking something into public ownership. Is the hon. Gentleman still saying today that it was the wrong decision? I think people across Teesside would be amazed by that.
Personally, I am still a little surprised that it ever happened. Labour-led authorities at that time supported the purchase of the airport. The Mayor was elected on the promise that he would buy the airport; it was in his manifesto and others facilitated his doing it. He is the person who will have to bear the brunt of the problems that we will face in the future, including the many millions of pounds that we are going to lose, year on year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it might assist us if the various companies that have fallen under the umbrella of this organisation voluntarily agreed to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000? What we have here is a raft of public money, and a public body, put beyond the gaze of the public. Does he agree that that does not help scrutiny and transparency?
Most certainly. I cannot understand why anybody wants to hide where the public money has been spent. I know that there are different people involved in all these different companies. I would like to know what their agenda is. Is it the agenda of the people of the Tees Valley?
The failure of the Government, both nationally and locally, angers and saddens me. The Tees Valley is fit to burst with potential. We are ripe and ready to be levelled up; we are calling out for it. We have the potential to exploit the amazing opportunities for green industry, including carbon capture and storage. We have a high skill base, tight-knit communities and local authorities that, despite political changes, have a track record of working together, and achieving great things when they do. Sometimes, local Tories try to claim that Labour politicians are talking down Teesside.
I almost have to laugh. Talking down Teesside? It is the greatest honour of my life to represent the amazing and diverse citizens of Stockton North, and to champion the vibrant history and culture of the Tees Valley. The real problem is that for the past 10 years, the Tories have been booting down Teesside. Their mind-boggling incompetence in handling the covid crisis is yet another catastrophic kick to the region. Pointing out the heartbreaking inequalities that affect our constituents is not talking down our area. It is standing up for our area in the face of a national Conservative Government who have neglected the north-east for years. The Tees economy is on the cliff edge of a hard Brexit, and the lack of investment and post-pandemic rebuilding will push it into the abyss.
“The human, social and economic cost of this is appalling. Levelling up has to mean more than just shiny projects. It must mean giving young people in our region the same life chances as they’d get in other parts of the country.”
He came out with another statement today; he said that the Chancellor’s announcement today was a missed opportunity:
“On the face of it a levelling-up fund sounds good but it is far too small in scale and ambition to be effective.”
I want our young people to get the benefits, but sadly I see no prospect of them getting the support they need. There are plenty of these shiny projects, but the absence of substance breaks my heart, because they could have so much more. Our constituents deserve better than this. They need better than this.
I appeal to the Minister to stress to his colleagues the need for true levelling up; for help sustaining jobs and creating new ones; to be open, honest and transparent when dealing with public money; to end the health inequalities that continue to blight our communities; and, perhaps above all, to give our young people real hope that they can have the careers they want and a future they can look forward to. Let us make the expression “levelling up” more than a cliché. Let us make it a demonstration of action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate Alex Cunningham on securing today’s debate. I just wish he could have been more generous in his speech. It was, I am afraid, a quintessential example of talking down Teesside, the phrase he rightly used. Indeed, it contained a series of remarks that are deeply disparaging of what is going on in our area, and some half-baked innuendo around impropriety by the Mayor that he would be ill-advised to repeat outside the House.
What is happening in the Tees Valley will, of course, transform the life chances of his constituents and mine. Under successive Governments, our area has never been supported properly to adapt to a changing world, so our traditional strength in heavy industry became a new-found weakness. That is changing under the Conservatives. The solutions the Labour Government offered were the wrong ones; there was an unsustainable reliance on public sector jobs, a culture of welfare dependency, and a lack of thought about how to instigate proper, sustainable, private sector growth.
What is required for the Tees Valley? Opportunity, investment, and leadership—and that is what we now have. The hon. Gentleman denigrated the fact that there is a 10-year plan; I am glad there is a plan. It is a plan that has been agreed in partnership between Government, local government, our councils and industry. That is an example of precisely the kind of successful devolution that we need to see more of in this country.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned over-reliance on public sector workers. Are those the same public sector workers for whom we came out from our houses and clapped on a Thursday night in appreciation of the work that they do and in acknowledgement of how much we rely on them, or is he now casting them to one side as well?
We do, actually, and we have defended the lowest paid in today’s statement, but it is very important to note that in the end we need to have sustainable private sector-led growth in the Tees Valley and that was not what was delivered under the last Labour Government. What we need to see is growth, and how will that growth be delivered? There are five key aspects to that.
The first is the regeneration of the former SSI steelworks site at Redcar, supported by £233 million from the Government. It is the largest redevelopment project in the United Kingdom. What will go there? In February, I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of Net Zero Teesside at the Riverside stadium. As we heard last week, carbon capture, usage and storage will be at the heart of the Government’s green industrial revolution. It is backed by £1 billion of Government investment, and the Tees and the Humber CCS clusters—
I will not, because of lack of time.
This is an important part of that piece. CCS will sit alongside other clean energy projects, including the national hydrogen transport hub and the offshore wind industry. The hon. Gentleman said that there is no good coming to the area from it. An application is being made for the new £90 million quay at South Bank, which will create hundreds of jobs. It is all set to be built next year.
The second feature of our vision for Teesside is, of course, a freeport. Despite Labour doing everything it could to stop Brexit—which is the reason why Teesside is now represented by more Government than Labour MPs—we will leave the transition period and regain full national independence on
The third aspect of our plan is, of course, an infrastructure revolution. It cannot be overstated how important it is that the Mayor saved our airport in the teeth of the hon. Gentleman’s opposition and that of his colleagues. We have had the announcement today of the new flights to Alicante and Majorca—something that both his constituents and mine will enjoy next summer. That is on top of the new service to London Heathrow, the UK’s global transport hub, and the multimillion-pound regeneration of Middlesbrough station and Darlington station.
Of course, the fourth strand of levelling up comes in the form of skills. The Government have already committed £450 million to the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s plans to give young people access to skills training, introduce high-quality broadband and overcome barriers to work. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s kickstart scheme, part of the emergency response to coronavirus, has already surpassed 500 jobs for local 16 to 24-year-olds, with applications still open.
The fifth and final element of levelling up is, of course, direct investment through the £3.6 billion towns fund. Middlesbrough, Redcar, Thornaby and Hartlepool are all awaiting the outcome of their bids. Darlington has already had £22.7 million from the fund. And that comes on top of bids to the future high streets fund, which I hope will benefit both Middlesbrough and Loftus.
We all know that levelling up is the task of at least a decade. None of this will be achieved easily. None of it comes simply. But it is happening precisely because we have confidence in Teesside, in the people of Teesside and in the future of Teesside. Rather than talking it down, we talk it up, and that is being rewarded for the people of the area, who see hope, growth, jobs and optimism. They see that from the Government side of the House, from the Conservatives, and long may it continue.
It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour Alex Cunningham for securing the debate, and Mr Speaker for granting me permission to speak on behalf of my constituency of Middlesbrough.
Ten years of Tory austerity have been utterly devastating for our people, and for none more so than for the people in my town of Middlesbrough and for our communities across the Tees Valley. That the Government are now talking about a levelling up agenda is the result of the inequalities that have taken hold across the regions over recent years because of their policies. The prolonged period of underfunding and not providing communities with the powers to help themselves has left us in a state where the disparity in funding levels across the UK is stark.
Let us look at transport. Last year, London got £903 per head and the north-east £486. The Government do not have the interests of the whole nation at heart. The Middlesbrough to King’s Cross rail service has been put back and back and back. The latest estimated time of arrival is December 2021, and further delays would not surprise me.
Let us try not to be too party political about this. Does the hon. Member not recognise that under-investment in the north, which we all suffer from, has happened under Governments of all persuasions, for decades, and this is the first Government who are doing something tangible about it?
I would like to think that was true. I hear that trotted out ad nauseam from the Government Benches: “When you criticise me or hold me to account, you’re being party political.” That is our job. The Conservatives have had 10 years in Government and have done nothing but give us false promises and hard hats. We are not into it. Of course, there was nothing about Northern Powerhouse Rail in the Chancellor’s statement and there is nothing at all on the horizon for the much-needed electrification of the line from Northallerton through to Middlesbrough and beyond.
Sadly, the social, economic and health crises brought about by covid-19 have only exacerbated the existing inequalities. It is no surprise that Middlesbrough, as one of the poorest parts of the country, with 40% of children growing up below the poverty line and where four out of five workers have to leave home to go about their work, was also one of the areas of the UK worst hit by the virus.
There are, however, things that can be done to address some of the impacts of years of neglect and the ravages of covid. Many of us are old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher in ’79 cancelling the transfer of the Government’s property service agencies from London to Middlesbrough—3,000 jobs cut at a stroke. Over recent years of Tory rule, high-quality Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs jobs have been ripped out of Middlesbrough and Stockton, among them experienced civil servants who were tax inspectors and whose debt recovery performance was the best in the country. I pleaded with the Government not to rob us of those high-quality jobs, but did they listen?
That is why I am hugely disappointed that the Chancellor has not come forward today with a decision regarding the campus for the north. Over the past year I have repeatedly urged him to bring forward plans to establish that campus and bring with it 22,000 Government jobs for our communities, making the case for Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley to be chosen as a site for the new campus. Again—lots of press releases, but no action.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and I recently met senior representatives of BP and Net Zero Teesside. For many years, we have been pressing the case for carbon capture, use and storage on Teesside, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends’ work. We very much welcomed the discussion about further work on the plans, which have been a long time in development. However, the funding behind the Government’s 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution does not come anywhere near addressing the immediate climate and employment crisis.
There is no engagement or consultation with trade unions when we secure very welcome major capital expenditure projects, totally consistent with the ambitions of the green industrial revolution. That cannot continue. I have begged the Government to listen to Frances O’Grady of the TUC and her call for a national recovery council, with Government, businesses and unions working together. We want good jobs and good industrial relations from the off. We want union engagement at the start of the process, not desperate attempts at retrofitting. On Teesside, as across the entire country, if there is to be any substance to the constant drip feed of rehashed announcements and hollow promises, it has to mean something for Teesside workers, with a clear path to delivery.
There is an opportunity here to create new, well-paid unionised jobs. There is insufficient focus on jobs and ensuring that we have the skills to secure those jobs. Sadly, Tory Governments do all that they can to undermine the strength and bargaining power of trade unions that are fighting to protect jobs. President-elect Joe Biden said the other day:
“I want you to know I’m a union guy”, and that under his presidency unions will have increased power. He said:
“It’s not antibusiness. It’s about economic growth, creating good paying jobs.”
I do not know why the Tory Government cannot comprehend that.
The benchmark of the promise to level up will be my Middlesbrough constituents having those good jobs and being able to enjoy the benefits of economic growth with their families. As for the promise to boost skills, are the Government serious? They have just cancelled the union learning fund on the basis that it is not fair because all receiving workplaces are union workplaces. They should encourage workers, as I am doing today, to join a trade union. That is the way to secure better terms and conditions, safer workplaces, a better work-life balance and better pay and spending power to put demand back in the economy and taxes in the Treasury. Scrapping the union learning fund is levelling down, not levelling up, and it is a kick in the teeth for working people.
Sadly, far too many people in Middlesbrough and across the Tees Valley will not be looking forward to 2021 and levelling up, but they will be looking at the pork barrel Tory politics delivering for their friends, their party and their donors. It was ever thus, but it does not have to be like that. We can build back better if there is the political will, but my Middlesbrough constituents see very little evidence of it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. The deindustrialisation of the north began long before Margaret Thatcher closed the pits. For Hartlepool, the closure of our shipyards and steelworks provided an economic shock that we have barely recovered from. Since the 1980s, the town has gradually fallen behind other places in the UK for job prospects, life expectancy, health and economic growth. Where there was once a vibrant, highly skilled workforce and a strong industrial sector, there are now high levels of unemployment and a low- wage economy.
For far too long, levelling down has been the agenda for Hartlepool. One in three households are jobless, one third of our children are obese when they leave primary school, life expectancy continues to decline, and such is the level of need that there are currently an estimated nine known food kitchens. The same goes for the rest of the Tees Valley. Once the industrial powerhouse of the country, it has been systematically ground down by years of Government austerity and under-investment, and the dismantling of infrastructure designed specifically to tackle local economic and regenerational needs such as One NorthEast.
When the Redcar steelworks closed recently and the blast furnace was capped, the beating heart of a centuries-old industry stopped. For many at the time it was as if life had been choked out of Teesside and the project’s decimation was complete. Most certainly it led to thousands of highly paid skilled workers entering the jobs market. Fortunately, because events are so recent, we have retained that skills base in the Tees Valley. In fact, right across the piece, we have a disproportionate number of skilled workers in the labour market ready to work, desperate for work, and in prime position to pass those skills on to the next generation.
When we consider the levels of in-house poverty on Teesside, third-generation unemployment in our communities, and workers desperate for jobs looking on in anger as big industry replaces local jobs with cheaper agency workers, we know that levelling up is more than an economic challenge. It is a generational life saver, which is why the work of the Tees Valley Mayor and the combined authority is so important.
What remains of our industrial infrastructure is unique. We are the most compact offshore oil and gas, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industrial cluster in the country. We are in prime position to convert the old heavy polluting industries into powerhouses for the so-called green industrial revolution. The people of the Tees Valley have the skills, the knowledge and the know-how to embrace the new challenges, but we need the right level of investment from the Government, the banks and industry to make it so.
The Tees Valley Mayor is undoubtedly ambitious and vocal. Nobody can argue against the need to embrace new green technologies and the push for net zero carbon emissions, so he is right and we are right to champion carbon capture, usage and storage, wind technology, hydrogen technology, and to push for the aims of initiatives such as Net Zero Teesside to become a reality. Some would argue that the Mayor is ahead of the curve on many aspects that now fit with the Government’s levelling up ambitions, but what we do not need are pledges and plans and promises of jam tomorrow. We need action, new money and real investment to realise our ambitions. For Hartlepool, that must include securing a firm commitment from the Government on the future of our nuclear power plant. Nobody has mentioned nuclear energy in this debate: it not only provides a low-carbon bridge to net zero but makes a significant contribution to the national grid and produces hydrogen as a by-product.
New nuclear is listed in the Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which my hon. Friend Andy McDonald mentioned, so it is clearly a priority. Rather than see more high-skilled jobs go, let us have a firm commitment to supporting the industry on Teesside.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. I welcome the Chancellor’s promises in the spending review, which will go a long way to kick-start the Government’s levelling up agenda. As recently as this morning, in a debate on northern infrastructure, which was notably ignored by the vast majority of Labour Members, I mentioned the need for a fund that MPs could use to secure funding for local projects to commit to levelling up.
Prior to coming to this place, I sat as a Durham county councillor, and the local councillors had a local fund to help local projects at a small level. It is a very similar concept. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, knows of things on which he would like to spend money in his constituency.
The project of levelling up the Tees Valley is ambitious and attainable. We have already seen great successes in levelling up the valley, including the saving of Teesside International airport in the south of my constituency, which has flights to connect the world to Teesside. It was announced this morning that Ryanair will be joining us. Teesside International airport and its estate is a flagship for levelling up and shows what can be achieved quickly with the correct capital investment and implementation plan. I look forward to further investment.
Under the stewardship of Ben Houchen, levelling up the Tees Valley looks to have an exciting future, with plans for a new freeport that could create 32,000 jobs and add £2 billion to the regional economy, and the UK’s largest industrial zone in Teesworks will create extra jobs there. This is an exciting time for the region, and I hope this debate allows us to discuss how we can move it on further.
My constituency of Sedgefield sits on the edge of the Tees Valley, and I assume that I am the eighth of the seven that Alex Cunningham mentioned—there are eight of us in the Tees Valley, and a third of my constituency is in the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Because of that, we are in a unique position. Many of my constituents travel to the Tees Valley for work every day, and many from the Tees Valley travel to Sedgefield. Because of that, hon. Members might expect good transport links between the two, but that is not the case. Out of 228,000 people in County Durham, only 13,000 use the bus and 2,000 use the train. Cars are obviously the main thing. It is not good that 164,000 people opt to use a car to get to work. I obviously support the Darlington bypass, which would link Newton Aycliffe business park, with 10,000 jobs, to Teesport.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point about the public transport links. I wonder whether he might want to have a word with the Tees Valley Mayor about embracing the powers under the Bus Services Act 2017 to re-regulate our buses so that the hon. Gentleman can deliver the services that wants in his constituency.
We must remember that, in order to level up, the benefits and successes of regeneration from freeports, green jobs and so on must be distributed across the region. The critical advantage is connections to those projects by air, bus, train, bike—whatever. I welcome the Chancellor’s decision to provide funding to start a feasibility study on Ferryhill station and include it in the national infrastructure plan. The residents have been asking for it for 24 years. When a certain Tony Blair was the MP for Sedgefield, there was no progress whatever. The comment we got from the local Labour group was, “Thatcher stopped that.” Well, 24 years is plenty of time to fix it.
My point is that we need a long-term plan focused on connectivity. It is important to have an integrated transport system and short, medium and long-term commitments to encourage optimistic investment by business and housing in places where it is needed. We look forward to further benefits of opening this rail connection, which would open the door and provide a foundation to better connect Teesside with Tyneside and Wearside and improve connectivity.
Alongside the levelling up of our physical infrastructure, we must also level up our social infrastructure. This funding will be vital in the medium to long-term response to covid, since research shows that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing social and economic problems in left-behind neighbourhoods. What I mean by levelling up our social infrastructure is building social capital and investing in our communities and community projects.
I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, and we have identified 122 constituencies with left-behind communities. We define those by using the community needs index and taking the bottom 10% of the wards in England. Some 30% of those were in former—I say again, former—red wall constituencies, and seven of the eight constituencies in the Tees Valley include left-behind neighbourhoods.
One proposal, for a community wealth fund, would provide investment and put left-behind communities in charge of the spend, enabling them to build the social capital and civic infrastructure they need. I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment in the spending review to a levelling up fund and the new community fund, and I hope to work with all local colleagues to maximise its application in our area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank Alex Cunningham for securing this debate. Before I start, I have had messages from my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and for Redcar (Jacob Young), who really wanted to be here but are doing their duty and self-isolating, so I just want to put that on record.
Just last week I was in this Chamber emphasising the importance of levelling up, and I am delighted to be able to do so again. The levelling-up agenda is really at the heart of my politics and the reason that I am in this place. It means changing lives for the better, allowing businesses to flourish and those held back by the circumstances to fulfil their potential and grasp opportunities.
Yet time and time again, when we are talking about levelling up across the country, including in the north-east, we see the Opposition talk it down. While we drive investment in transport, in industry and in green technology, the Opposition talk it down—[Interruption.] They are trying to do it right now. We focus on creating opportunities for the future, but instead, the hon. Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) hark back to the past, talking about Margaret Thatcher and events under her premiership—things that happened before I and many of their constituents were even born.
We are about the future; Labour are about the past. For too long, the Opposition have taken people such as my constituents for granted. They believed it was their right to represent seats such as mine in the north-east, yet for decades under local Labour leadership our region saw nothing but decline—but then came the light. Leading the Tees Valley Combined Authority, Ben Houchen has shown that the levelling-up agenda is also at the heart of his mission.
The Tees Valley has an extraordinary champion in Ben Houchen, someone who has been fighting for the area from day one. Though my constituency is not within the Tees Valley Combined Authority area, Teesside’s success means more opportunities for constituents of mine in Bishop Auckland, and although geography means that they cannot vote for him, my constituents certainly have a lot of very kind words to say about Ben Houchen, and Labour needs to take note of that.
I was planning to say a lot more, but I want to keep it brief to allow my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake a go. The short point is that we are delivering, after years and years of Labour’s talking the area down and doing little to deliver for the communities it claims to represent. We are delivering, and that is the reason why Opposition Members hate it so much.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate Alex Cunningham on bringing forward this important debate.
The key message from my very brief words will be that if we want to level up—as we all do, and this should be a constructive debate about how we do that—the reality is that for decades Government after Government have left our region behind. I call Tees Valley our region; I am probably only hon. Member speaking whose constituency is not directly covered by the geography of Tees Valley, but I am a neighbouring Member of Parliament, and we have Woodsmith Mine, which has important economic connections with Redcar.
The reality is that it will be a huge task to level up. The best analogy I can make for levelling up this country—the north and the midlands particularly—would be the reunification of East and West Germany. That took three decades and $2 trillion to do. It is a huge undertaking. The key thing we should learn from Germany is that it was not just about public sector investment. It was public sector and private sector investment. Members on both sides of the House have made that important point. We must accept that there is a natural spending bias towards London and the south-east because of things like the Green Book and the housing infrastructure fund. We should be championing against that, and it has been the same for Governments of many persuasions. On the back of that, of course, the Government is ensuring that hundreds of billions of pounds of infra- structure will be spent in our region.
I will provide an example of why this matter is: Mark Littlewood from the Institute of Economic Affairs said that if the issue is just about infrastructure, then why is Doncaster not more prosperous? It is about more than just connections. There must be private sector investment. We must incentivise the private sector and we need super-enterprise zones across the whole of Tees Valley with business rate discounts, good treatment of capital allowances and incentives to invest more. We need that on the back of the excellent programme of investment we will get from the Government.
It truly is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham for securing this timely debate.
Other Members have already said that we have been hearing the message of levelling up from consecutive Conservative Governments since 2010. I take the point made by Dehenna Davison, but this is not about looking in the rear-view mirror. The truth is that if a child does not have the absolute right start in life, that child’s chances for the future are depleted. That is the point that Opposition Members are trying to make. It is absolutely right that we refer back to the era of Margaret Thatcher, which desecrated the north. That was the foundation for where the north finds itself today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North and other Opposition Members are right to talk about poverty, and as a Member of Parliament for a fellow northern city constituency I share with him the same concerns. We need to level up in education funding, unemployment rates, transport funding and much more. Whether someone comes from Bradford West or Stockton North or Middlesbrough, the barriers in life created by Conservative Governments are, sadly, the same.
Despite the Government’s claim, regional inequality has deepened under the conservatives. A decade of low investment has left the country deeply imbalanced, with towns and cities outside London losing out. My hon. Friend Andy McDonald mentioned the 22,000 potential jobs that could have been created with the campus in the north. The list goes on. The north has heard all the promises from the Government, and is still waiting for the current pledges of infrastructure funding to be fulfilled before we turn to the new commitments made.
Today, the Chancellor promised a bank, but the north is still waiting for its rail. Six years on from first being announced, Northern Powerhouse Rail has still not yet been approved, let alone started. The people of Stockton were promised a new hospital building, but it has yet to materialise 10 years later. Today the Chancellor spoke about creating jobs, but we have heard all of that before. At national level, employment figures across the country recovered in the decade following the crash, but there is a big imbalance in where the jobs were created. For every job created in the north-east, 13 jobs were created in London. The record over the last three years of the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley—creating a single job at a cost of £100,000—is such a disastrous waste of public funding that only his colleagues in Whitehall could do worse with taxpayers’ money.
Time and again, the north of England has been governed by Whitehall and been left second to London. As already outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, the health inequalities in Stockton-on-Tees are such that the lives of men living in the town centre are expected to be 18 years shorter than their counterparts just down the road. These existing inequalities have put those from the north at higher risk from the pandemic. Even in the pandemic, people in the north have been more likely to have their working hours reduced or to have lost their jobs altogether. As our shadow Chancellor put it,
“They have, bluntly and tragically, been more likely to die of covid-19.”
From the outset of the pandemic, we have continually called for local test and trace. Regional Mayors and local councils have been prepared from day one to assist the Government in building local infrastructure to deliver a localised service. The country was in a time of need and an opportunity to build locally presented itself, but the Government decided to dish out millions to private companies without competition, and without penalty clauses for poor performance. Those with connections were 10 times more likely to get a deal.
As if Tory cronyism could not get any worse, today, the Chancellor’s infrastructure fund is based on agreement from MPs—yet again Tory MPs get in ahead to lobby for their own areas. The 2019 towns fund is just one example that was meant to support struggling towns but, instead, one Minister signs off the next Minister’s request for funds. Out of 101 towns funded, only 40 were on a needs basis, and the other 61 were chosen by their own Ministers. While our nation is facing the largest fall in output for 300 years, the choices this nation needs to make are based on the country’s needs, and not the needs of Conservative MPs and their friends. We have been listening to Conservative jargon on redistribution since 2010. It is just another term now—levelling up—but despite the north and the poorest in society falling further behind, we are still waiting for delivery.
We need high-quality businesses in every town that provide well-paid and secure jobs, so that people do not just survive but thrive. With rising unemployment, lower average wages than the national average, and the biggest increase in child poverty in the past five years, the time is now for this Government to act on the north-east. The Government have a clear responsibility, and it is finally time for them to deliver on it. As my hon. Friend Mike Hill outlined, this is a generational life-saver.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins, and to be back in Westminster Hall after such an absence. I congratulate Alex Cunningham on securing this debate and all Members on their contributions. It has been an important and passionate debate, and certainly a timely one following the Chancellor’s statement earlier today. I also put on record my gratitude to my hon. Friends the Members for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for their continued representations on behalf of their constituents. They are rightly doing their duty in self-isolating, but I am sure they would have wanted to be here today.
The thing that has bound everyone in this debate together is their passion to get the best for the future of Tees Valley and the communities they represent. The shared ambition that they have, working with Ben Houchen and the leadership teams at the Tees Valley Combined Authority, is to get the best for their constituents.
Levelling up is a central part of this Government’s agenda. That is why we have set out a clear commitment to unlock economic prosperity across all parts of the country. It is about providing the building blocks and momentum to address those long-term structural regional inequalities, and providing the means to pursue life chances that, for too many people, have been out of reach for far too long. This is hugely important for Tees Valley, where deindustrialisation and the pace of economic change have created challenges to growth and social mobility. Levelling up is about enabling places to determine and support their own economic priorities. That is why we are working so closely with the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the local enterprise partnership, and it is why we have invested £126 million of local growth funding in Tees Valley based on local evidence and local prioritisation.
The fund has improved access to Billingham train station, and improved infrastructure to allow that critical private sector expansion in Stockton’s biopharmaceutical campus—both of these are, of course, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I want to thank Ben Houchen, who has become a leader in showing the potential of devolution across our country. I do not make that point on a party-political basis—other Mayors across the country have done a fantastic job, too—but Ben Houchen has been a model for what devolution can achieve. If we look at the devolution deal, which is already enabling new spend and will deliver £450 million over that 30-year period, it has established a regional investment fund supporting the plans by the Mayor for sustainable economic growth.
We are delighted that one of the Mayors’ flagship initiatives has been transforming the industrial site that includes the former SSI steelworks at Redcar into Teesworks through the mayoral development corporation. We have supported that with £233 million on siteworks over the past five years, and recently handed full control over to the combined authority. Work is now well under way to develop Teesworks as a pioneering business park, which will create 20,000 highly skilled jobs over the next two decades. It is a shining example of what effective partnerships between central Government and devolved powers with effective local Mayors can achieve. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend Paul Howell about achievements around the airport, and even the announcements we have seen today about new routes from Teesside International airport and new operators from the summer. I congratulate colleagues in this House, the Mayor, and everybody involved.
We should also welcome and look at the towns fund investment. We have invited five of the region’s towns to submit proposals for towns deals as part of our £3.6 billion towns fund. We have now agreed the heads of terms with Darlington—that is £22.3 million to boost employment and skills, as well as to make improvements to how the town looks and feels. Prospective deals can follow in Middlesbrough, Thornaby-on-Tees, Hartlepool and Redcar. The objective of the deals is to drive the regeneration of towns and to deliver long-term economic and productivity growth. Across the Tees Valley, the towns deal boards are already working with the community, businesses, investors and local government to do just that.
A number of Members have mentioned the Chancellor’s announcement today about the levelling-up fund. We think that is a further positive example of what can be done with levelling up. Such projects will have a real impact on people’s communities. They can be delivered within this Parliament, and it is right that they should command local support, including from Members of Parliament. It is wrong to suggest that MPs do not speak to local government, because they are able to input valuable information about the projects that their constituents want to see. The levelling-up fund will support the infrastructure that people want in everyday life and that they contact MPs about, from new bypasses and upgrading railway services, to traffic, libraries, museums and cultural assets—all the important issues that our constituents raise with us. The levelling-up fund will be open to all local areas and will be allocated competitively. Next year, £600 million will be available in England.
It is also right to point to the investment in high streets, because the need for the regeneration of high streets is evident in so many of our towns and communities across the country. We have seen considerable challenges for high streets in the past decade, which is why our future high streets fund will revitalise high streets, helping them to adapt and evolve and to remain vibrant places at the heart of our communities. We have submissions from Loftus, Darlington, Middlesbrough and Stockton, and of course we have Hartlepool, which has been selected as the high street taskforce pilot. We will announce the successful future high street fund places before the end of this year, and we will contact places once decisions have been made. That is a hugely important part of the work that we are doing.
We should also recognise the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has thrust upon us. To counteract some of the impact on businesses and productivity, the Prime Minister announced the £900 million Getting Building fund in August, to deliver jobs. The Tees Valley received £17.4 million of that money, and it is worth noting that that was the highest amount per capita anywhere in the country. Those funds have been supporting the development of high-grade business accommodation at Darlington’s flagship research and development site at Central Park, and they have also helped accelerate the redevelopment of Middlesbrough railway station by improving its facilities and strengthening its connectivity.
Mike Hill made an informed and passionate contribution about the future of green energy and its importance for growth in the Tees Valley. It is undoubtedly right that that has to be an important part of the area’s future growth. We absolutely recognise the urgency of a green industrial revolution that will deliver an economic resurgence and meet our 2050 target, which is why the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan commits to invest up to £1 billion to support the establishment of carbon capture and storage clusters in pioneering places such as Teesside. I am pleased that the Tees Valley is set to host the UK’s first hydrogen transport hub, helping to create hundreds of green jobs. It will help establish the Tees Valley as a hive of research and development activity, advocating the prospect of using green hydrogen to power our buses, heavy goods vehicles, rail, maritime transport and aviation around the country.
I am conscious of the time, so I thank the hon. Member for Stockton North for securing the debate and for his contribution. I know that he is rightly passionate about the levelling-up agenda, and I stand ready to support him if he wants to work with the Government on these issues. However, it is right that towns and communities around the country will be powering our economic recovery, and it is clear that the Tees Valley will be at the heart of this country’s renewal.
I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this robust debate. I am pleased that the Minister at least recognises that we are here because we believe in our areas; we are not talking them down. We believe in them, and we are speaking up for them. I appreciate the fact that he is now nodding.
I have 20 seconds left, so as for the Minister’s answers: no new hospitals, and no reference to health at all. I have one final point to repeat: five jobs have been lost in the past seven months for every job created in the past three years. We need to do much, much better for the Tees Valley.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (