A leading think tank has urged the Tees Valley Combined Authority to improve communication and consultation if it wants to make a success of levelling up.
Demos has conducted research through focus groups across Teesside, Hartlepool and Darlington. The think tank has also demanded the government provide more support for people struggling with the cost of living crisis which was the main focus for the residents who were part of the study.
The report – Teed Up For Success? What the Tees Valley tells us about levelling up – found there was a lack of trust in politicians, people in the region were confused by the different layers of local government and some were unaware of whether levelling up was still a policy. However, the researchers did say several people thought things were heading in the right direction and residents did praise the new jobs, even if there was some concern over a skills deficit.
The devolution deal to create the Tees Valley Combined Authority was signed in 2015 and is made up of five local authorities – Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Darlington and Stockton. Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen was first elected in 2017 with 51% of the vote before being re-elected with 73% in 2021.
Demos confirmed the approach being taken by the TVCA to revitalise local industries with a focus on green jobs and skills approach was the right one. Key schemes include Teesside Airport, Teesworks – which includes Net Zero Teesside, SeAH, and the South Bank Quay – and transport improvements across the region.
The research has been released as the government confirms the successful schemes in the second round of bidding for the £4.8bn levelling up fund. The TVCA was granted £17.7m for 15km of walking and cycling routes, Redcar Council received £15m for Guisborough and £4.8m will also go towards highways improvements for 800 new homes in Newham Grange, and Hartlepool Council received more than £16m for a new production village.
‘I have got a warm fuzzy feeling that industry is coming back’
The report highlights confusion about whether levelling-up has been scrapped, which schemes were introduced through the policy and which politicians are responsible for delivering the projects. It states: “Those who could point to examples of levelling up projects in the Tees Valley were in the minority, while those who had seen an impact on their lives were even fewer.”
Of the mayor’s priorities, Teesside Airport was the scheme the people in the focus groups were most familiar with. Some people saw it as a ‘white elephant’ (something that’s difficult and expensive to maintain), however, others thought Mr Houchen had made a great success of it.
People also pointed to Teesworks as a project they were aware of, however, they were in the minority. One man in the Darlington focus group said “Since Houchen has come in, I have got a warm fuzzy feeling that industry is coming back…and I applaud him.”
Another person enthusiastically praised the 1,500 jobs coming to the Darlington Economic Campus, as the Treasury relocates jobs out of London.
‘My faith in them is out of the window’
However, a barrier identified to the success of levelling up was the general mistrust felt towards politicians. One person, who was speaking about the national picture, said, “my faith in them is out of the window,” while another added they had “total mistrust of the government; I just don’t trust anyone now.”
These feelings also extended to local politics and people pointed to infighting at Middlesbrough Council and councillors arguing on social media. Cynicism was also expressed about local government publicising what they were doing more frequently around elections.
One of the researchers’ recommendations was to improve the TVCA’s consultation process by engaging people in the policy-making process, through shaping priorities, co-design of local development programmes or budget-setting. They believe this will help build trust between politicians and residents.
The report states: “Very few of the people we spoke to could recall being involved in any form of consultation about projects or policy making locally…No one we spoke to had been consulted or engaged about a specific levelling up project.”
People also felt like they were not being communicated with, other than through the Tees Valley mayor’s social media. Furthermore, some were unclear about Mr Houchen’s role and thought he had been communicating less in recent months. The report stated: “Talking about the mayor’s presence following some problems at a local airshow, one person explained, ‘he was all over social media, like you’re seeing pictures outside the airport and stuff, and he seemed very heavily involved. And then, after that, you don’t see or hear much of him’.”
Demos has recommended the TVCA improves the range of its communications, which could be through newsletters, leaflets, stalls in town centres or local media engagement. It also called for the body to keep people up to date with the progress of projects.
In response, Mr Houchen said: “We will await to see the full report. From the few snippets shared by this overt left-wing London think tank, it sounds at odds with other sensible groups who have done more extensive research and the people of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool who I speak to every day.”
Demos considers itself an independent cross-party think tank.
‘Even with existing support, people are still struggling’
The cost of living crisis was the main focus for people who spoke to the researchers and posed a risk to the success of levelling up, according to the think tank. Demos claimed that this needed to be effectively addressed, partly so the public will have enough cash to spend in their towns’ revitalised areas.
The think tank called on the government to take action to alleviate the effects of the cost of living crisis partly through advertising the current offer of support more widely but also by expanding available help.
The report states: “Even with existing support, people are still struggling: many are waiting for support, while others are ineligible. The government should bring forward and extend existing cost of living measures, such as expanding the eligibility of households able to claim cost of living payments after April 2023.”
In response, a government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures of the rising cost of living which is why we have already delivered £1,200 of direct help to more than eight million vulnerable households this financial year, including £400 towards energy costs. This support has been promoted as part of a major national campaign.
“In addition, those most in need will receive up to £1,350 in additional direct support in 2023/24, and our Energy Price Guarantee is saving around £900 for a typical household over winter. We have also announced an increased funding package of £59.5 billion for councils in England for the next financial year.”