Chris Lloyd watches the Chancellor in action as our region is singled out in the Budget for pioneering initiatives and praise
CHANCELLORS usually describe their annual statements as a Budget for business, or a Budget for hard working families, perhaps a Budget for growth. This was a Budget for the tsunami of Tees Valley Tories which has swept from Cleveland coast to Durham dale in the last five years.
Treasury jobs to Darlington, a freeport for Teesside and the mouth of the river identified as the venue of the next generation of offshore windfarms.
Plus Universal Credit uplift maintained, furlough scheme extended, high street business rates suspended.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak – in a confident performance – even threw himself into a breathless paragraph of praise, predicting a trading and manufacturing future every bit as great as Teesside’s industrial heritage and it would all, he said without needing a gasp of oxygen, be tied into the Treasury hub down the road in Darlington and a new infrastructure bank just an hour away in Leeds.
Pity poor Jessie Joe Jacobs, Labour’s candidate in May’s mayoral elections. Not only is she taking on the well ensconced, airport-buying Conservative mayor – the first of the Tories to break the Labour electoral logjam – but now she has the full might of the Chancellor’s spending ranged against her.
However you look at it, the Treasury hub coming to Darlington is a great coup for the region and its newly elected blue politicians.
As Mr Sunak, the Richmond MP, announced that its location would be just north of his constituency, the TV camera cut to Darlington’s MP, Peter Gibson, sitting on the backbenches. Mr Gibson’s face was hidden behind a mask covered with dogs, but he must have been grinning like a cat that got the cream.
Decentralising government by moving civil servants out of London is a welcome, and even historic, initiative. There has been nothing like this since 1965 when the Department of Education’s pensions department was moved to Mowden Hall, again to boost the regional economy.
There will be two key tests of the success of the Treasury initiative. Firstly, the new arrivals need to boost the town centre, not be hidden away in a swanky new build out near Amazon.
Secondly, and more importantly, they need to be more than just paper shufflers thrown out to distant Darlo as a sop to the red wall.
They need to be policy-makers who are blasted out of the cosy Westminster bubble into the real world of the provinces to experience real day-to-day lives. This could change the nature of their decisions so that the levelling up of northern areas, which felt so left behind that they jettisoned their usual party allegiances, becomes more than a slogan.
The second big announcement for the Teesside Tories was the creation of one of the first freeports. Mr Sunak has long been a fan of freeports as their business-boosting low tax, low regulation starting point is part of his traditional Conservative beliefs. Now, at last, there will be a chance to see if they can work, or whether they will upset the market and just suck in jobs that would have been created elsewhere.
But, in times of pandemic, original ideas need to be pursued to kickstart the economy.
It wasn’t just the Tees Valley that was the recipient of Mr Sunak’s largesse as he spent everywhere “from Rochdale to Rowley Regis, from Wolverhampton to Whitby”, propping the economy up until at least September in the hope the pandemic recedes.
And then the reckoning begins – how do we pay back the £400bn that has been borrowed?
Mr Sunak promised to level with the public, and we now know that the rates at which everyone starts to pay income tax are going to be frozen until at least 2026, and corporation tax on the biggest businesses is going to shoot up to 25 per cent.
But there was no big idea of where the money will come from and no precise timetable as to when it will be required – just a vague notion that sometime in the future will do.
“It is going to be the work of many government over many decades to pay it back,” he said.
So pain delayed – but for the Tees Valley in the meantime, the gain could be great.