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Levelling up died in Teesside Ben Houchen's freeport dream lies in tatters

They stand in a desert and call it levelling up. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

They stand in a desert and call it levelling up. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images


June 2, 2023   5 mins

It’s Saturday night on Middlesbrough High Street and a lager-soaked man called Dave is calling the Mayor of Teesside “a fucking wanker”. It’s not an unusual sentiment in these parts, where political apathy is particularly pervasive. Dave intervention, however, has a personal touch. For two months he worked for a company launched by Ben Houchen — a sportswear outfit called BLK that went under in 2018 with £3 million of debt.

Now, the Financial Times, Private Eye, The Yorkshire Post and many in Westminster have joined Dave in expressing concern about the character, business dealings and ability of a man once deemed the “rising star” of levelling up. Last week, their scepticism appeared vindicated when Michael Gove ordered a review into corruption allegations around one of the set pieces of post-Brexit Britain: the Teesworks development containing the country’s largest freeport.

Levelling up, like so many of the political visions of the last decade, appears to be dead. Once upon a time, before the ravages of inflation, pandemic and his own fall, Boris Johnson dreamt of a post-Brexit healing period driven by an era of high spending and devolution — a social transformation on the scale of the reunification of Germany. The rhetoric was always ambitious. But estimated costs ranged from £30 billion to £2 trillion — figures that never quite matched the Government’s own levelling-up budget of £11 billion, of which Labour claim 90% has not been spent, and from which seven in ten Conservative councillors say they have not seen any “tangible benefits”. And with this week’s revelation of another controversial “secret deal”, concerning Houchen and the transfer of public assets in Hartlepool, the events on Teesside now resemble a tragicomic final act for a British political era defined by exhausted ideas.

As in Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s great saga of failed political idealism centring around a South American silver mine, the goal was to “bring this corner of the world into the new”. And Houchen’s vision is on a similar scale: to create a hub for global trade and the green energy revolution within one of Britain’s most neglected regions. In similarly Conradian fashion, the first sign of trouble on Teesside came in the form of epic metaphor. Two years ago, overnight like a biblical reckoning, a “Lobstercaust” of dead crustaceans washed up on its beaches. Immediately, this midden of rotting shell and claw was connected with Houchen’s project, rumoured to be the result of the poisonous chemical pyridine dredged up from the old steelworks. Concerns were waved away by Defra who judged the link “exceptionally unlikely”. Despite the portent, work on the site would go on.

The freeport, having replaced the second-largest blast furnace in Europe, is expected to make amends for decades of deindustrialisation, as well as provide up to 18,000 jobs. But further development on the old steelworks — now Europe’s largest brownfield site — has been suspiciously slow, and contains a toxic wasteland the size of Gibraltar. Until the £500 million clean-up costs are paid for, the development is worthless. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the deal that placed most of the site in the hands of two local businessmen — Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney — has become mired in controversy.

So far, they have made a profit of £45 million over the past three years, and there appears to be no evidence that they have invested back into the project. One green steel investor told the FT he had already walked away from the “amateur hour” project. And speak to enough people on Teesside and you can sense the frustration of a place seduced and betrayed by a decade of failed political visions. Brexit, on the terms of its chief visionaries, has failed. Levelling up has, too. Now the last outlet of hope gifted to the area in this strange era of failed politics is the freeport.

“People up here still love Boris,” insists Andy Hixon as he takes me on a tour around the construction site. The former Tory councillor was swept to power on Johnson mania until he lost his seat in the recent local elections. We drive past the surreal icons of Britain’s post-industrial landscape: a drive-thru Taco Bell, a Victorian clock tower that tells no one the time. Speaking to locals in the town, there are plenty of reasons to doubt his optimism. The Mayor Ben Houchen is a “provincial, parochial solicitor from Stockton” who is “completely out of his depth”. Or, as one man told me, he’s a “poundshop Trump” who has “delivered no jobs” and helped “swindle the people of Teesside”.

But Hixon, calm and measured, is the archetype of a new breed of Tory stoicism in the face of doom. The men he drinks with are back in much-needed work after the pandemic. The myth of Johnson — ice cream cone in hand, windswept tie — that once toured these parts persists because it was the antithesis to the old politics of anger that haunted Teesside and never seemed to get anything done. Beyond the legacy of Boris, Hixon agrees that it boils down to a matter of reimagining the area. “Everyone’s continuously reinventing themselves,” he says. He has retrained three times and now owns his own petrochemical business. Teesside must do the same, he thinks, and arguably it already is. Redcar College has opened a Clean Energy Education Hub. SeAH wind, a Korean wind farm manufacturer, will open a turbine factory in 2026. If you believe in the freeport, then in time the freeport might believe in you, too.

Beyond the old industrial skyline and back in the centre of Middlesbrough, there is the opportunity to test out this vision. Joe, a sound and lighting engineer sunning himself in a redbrick street, has been “more or less out of work since Covid”. When I mention Houchen’s vision he responds with a description of Sunak as “a clueless rich wanker”. He doesn’t have an opinion on Labour and he doesn’t know what a freeport is. He will not vote. It’s not hard to find others who share a similar sentiment. “Look at the high street,” sighs one jaded-looking woman when I ask her about levelling up. And what about the freeport? “I don’t know what that is.” Inside a pub blasting karaoke onto the empty high street, a former RAF engineer is similarly bemused. Rather than empty promises of regeneration, he speaks of a “train and get out” model for the “Teesside diaspora”.

In Steelies, a social club whose existence reaches back into Teesside’s industrial past, a decades-old resentment still lingers. Concerns about the freeport, corruption and the future of the town are dismissed as “bloody pointless”. Guinness in hand, one retired electrician says he’s still furious about a “useless and corrupt”’ Labour council who did nothing for the area. “At least Houchen is trying to get something done.”

When I repeat this to a local Labour activist, the man is dismissed as living in a “fantasy land”. But what will Labour do with this grumpy, unresolved energy once courted by the Tories? The answer seems to be: try to move beyond it. Canvassing in the wake of local election success, he claims freeport allegations have brought a national narrative about Tory sleaze and incompetence home to Teesside. Now, as the activist puts it, there is a coalition of voters that exists beyond the ghosts of Brexit and Johnson: people under-40, female voters, those who have realised they’ve been “conned by the last decade of Tory rule”. But a vision for Labour here isn’t clear either. They want to echo Blair with talk of a new teacher training college, and sound like Starmer with their “laser focus on building local businesses”. But beneath that, they too lament the loss of the Steelworks in 2015, and are disquieted by the knowledge that they will once more come to inherit the blank canvas of toxic land around the freeport.

Conrad never knew how to finish Nostromo. Having spun a tale wagered on the cruelty of political idealism, he drove his characters to madness or suicide. Despite all this, the silver mine endured as a paradoxical symbol of hope. On Teesside, I suspect the freeport will, too. If it can weather the storm of allegations, and the new age of Global Britain in an uncertain world, it may yet save the region from the malaise and resentment that come after betrayal. Or — more likely now, as the clouds of corruption and incompetence draw in — the freeport dream will fail, too. This is the outcome this part of the country has become accustomed to. As with Teesside over the last decade, so much has changed politically, yet also so little.


Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse 

Skulthorp

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Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
10 months ago

What is it about the top right section of England that leads to article after article appearing in Unherd where individuals are asked their opinion, like the cheap MSM way of doing “news” these days, whilst hand-wringing for Britain on their sense of loss and ennui?

In the past few months, we’ve had Newcastle, Durham and now Teesside trashed, and for good measure a bit further south, Boston.

Many areas in this part of the country are thriving and their inhabitants cheerful and optimistic. Others aren’t, and their inhabitants a bit despondent and pessimistic; rather like everywhere else then. Would it kill journalists and writers to at least try to provide some balance?

Last edited 10 months ago by Steve Murray
Brendan O'Leary
BO
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Despite knowing that town centre retail is dead, taking the High Street to the grave with it, they persist in hanging about the High Street and talking to the clueless and lost as if they know something.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Despite knowing that town centre retail is dead, taking the High Street to the grave with it, they persist in hanging about the High Street and talking to the clueless and lost as if they know something.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

What is it about the top right section of England that leads to article after article appearing in Unherd where individuals are asked their opinion, like the cheap MSM way of doing “news” these days, whilst hand-wringing for Britain on their sense of loss and ennui?

In the past few months, we’ve had Newcastle, Durham and now Teesside trashed, and for good measure a bit further south, Boston.

Many areas in this part of the country are thriving and their inhabitants cheerful and optimistic. Others aren’t, and their inhabitants a bit despondent and pessimistic; rather like everywhere else then. Would it kill journalists and writers to at least try to provide some balance?

Last edited 10 months ago by Steve Murray
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago

Freeports connected to a good national road/rail network (and roads are the more important part) can work well, but governments insist on tying the Green albatross around their necks, so they are doomed from the start.

polidori redux
PR
polidori redux
10 months ago

Agreed, but when the main thrust of government policy is towards the effective de-industrialisation of the entire economy, successes will be few and far between.

polidori redux
polidori redux
10 months ago

Agreed, but when the main thrust of government policy is towards the effective de-industrialisation of the entire economy, successes will be few and far between.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago

Freeports connected to a good national road/rail network (and roads are the more important part) can work well, but governments insist on tying the Green albatross around their necks, so they are doomed from the start.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

Some rando on the street purportedly calls his hapless mayor a “pound shop Trump” who has “delivered no jobs”. Yeeeeeeah. What would some guy in Northern England know about President Trump’s record on employment (which was at all-time highs, particularly for blacks and Hispanics)? I suspect the writer shoehorned in that little comment because one can’t engage in journalism without the requisite Trump dig. But, if the guy actually did say it, his ignorance can be blamed on the journalists required to produce Trump digs.

William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago

Quite right.
President Trump helped America build its strongest economy in history. Median household incomes rose to their highest level ever in 2019, while the poverty rate hit an all-time low. Under the Trump Administration, more Americans were employed than ever before-160 million-and the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low. The unemployment rates for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Americans without a high-school diploma all hit record lows, while the Trump “Blue-Collar Boom” saw wages grow faster for workers than for managers or supervisors.
We could do a lot worse than having our own Trump steering the economy.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago

Quite right.
President Trump helped America build its strongest economy in history. Median household incomes rose to their highest level ever in 2019, while the poverty rate hit an all-time low. Under the Trump Administration, more Americans were employed than ever before-160 million-and the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low. The unemployment rates for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Americans without a high-school diploma all hit record lows, while the Trump “Blue-Collar Boom” saw wages grow faster for workers than for managers or supervisors.
We could do a lot worse than having our own Trump steering the economy.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

Some rando on the street purportedly calls his hapless mayor a “pound shop Trump” who has “delivered no jobs”. Yeeeeeeah. What would some guy in Northern England know about President Trump’s record on employment (which was at all-time highs, particularly for blacks and Hispanics)? I suspect the writer shoehorned in that little comment because one can’t engage in journalism without the requisite Trump dig. But, if the guy actually did say it, his ignorance can be blamed on the journalists required to produce Trump digs.

Rachel Taylor
RT
Rachel Taylor
10 months ago

£500 million to develop the largest brownfield site in Europe sounds like a bargain compared to HS2.
And what we need is Enterprise Zones, not freeports. A freeport can be a small part of an Enterprise Zone, but an enterprise zone will never be part of a freeport.

Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
10 months ago

£500 million to develop the largest brownfield site in Europe sounds like a bargain compared to HS2.
And what we need is Enterprise Zones, not freeports. A freeport can be a small part of an Enterprise Zone, but an enterprise zone will never be part of a freeport.

David McKee
David McKee
10 months ago

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “The most frightening words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”
Boris quite fancied himself as a messiah-figure, didn’t he? Full of bonhomie and vague promises, he left it to someone else to do the thinking and the organising to make good the promises.
Does anyone remember Heseltine on Merseyside? Heseltine made promises, but he put in the graft to make it happen – and that included knocking local heads together, to make them work as a team. Did it work? Up to a point. Liverpool is hardly a shining beacon of prosperity, but it’s not a basket-case either.
Are there any examples, anywhere in the world, of successful regeneration of a city or a region?

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
10 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

“Are there any examples, anywhere in the world, of successful regeneration of a city or a region?”
East Germany springs to mind, although admittedly, that’s a bit of a special case.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
10 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

“Are there any examples, anywhere in the world, of successful regeneration of a city or a region?”
East Germany springs to mind, although admittedly, that’s a bit of a special case.

David McKee
DM
David McKee
10 months ago

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “The most frightening words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”
Boris quite fancied himself as a messiah-figure, didn’t he? Full of bonhomie and vague promises, he left it to someone else to do the thinking and the organising to make good the promises.
Does anyone remember Heseltine on Merseyside? Heseltine made promises, but he put in the graft to make it happen – and that included knocking local heads together, to make them work as a team. Did it work? Up to a point. Liverpool is hardly a shining beacon of prosperity, but it’s not a basket-case either.
Are there any examples, anywhere in the world, of successful regeneration of a city or a region?

John Murray
John Murray
10 months ago

Freeports have been around, in one form or another, for years. The UK had them when we were in the EU, as recently as 2012, but the issue with them is there is no real evidence that they do any more than displace investment from one area to another, rather than encourage wider growth.

With this particular example, Private Eye has run a whole series of articles pointing out the crony capitalism element of it; enriching a few well connected people at public expense. A scam on the taxpayer.

The wider issue, though, is the model, the idea of ‘leave it to the market’ and a thousand flowers will bloom. The 2008 crash should have disabused us of this, but apparently not.

The state of our seas and rivers, where holidaymakers are noticing that they would be swimming in their own waste if they want to bathe has brought put the water companies under the spotlight, but also the question of whether privatisation delivered the better, cheaper service that was promised. With water, the involvement of private equity and foreign ownership has meant that billions of pounds has left the country in dividends, debt has been loaded on some companies while investment in infrastructure has suffered.

With the major economic powerhouses, US, EU, China, starting programmes of heavy investment, and changing the rules on state aid, the UK risks being left behind if we don’t at the very least question whether continuing with this economic model is the way to a better future.

John Murray
JM
John Murray
10 months ago

Freeports have been around, in one form or another, for years. The UK had them when we were in the EU, as recently as 2012, but the issue with them is there is no real evidence that they do any more than displace investment from one area to another, rather than encourage wider growth.

With this particular example, Private Eye has run a whole series of articles pointing out the crony capitalism element of it; enriching a few well connected people at public expense. A scam on the taxpayer.

The wider issue, though, is the model, the idea of ‘leave it to the market’ and a thousand flowers will bloom. The 2008 crash should have disabused us of this, but apparently not.

The state of our seas and rivers, where holidaymakers are noticing that they would be swimming in their own waste if they want to bathe has brought put the water companies under the spotlight, but also the question of whether privatisation delivered the better, cheaper service that was promised. With water, the involvement of private equity and foreign ownership has meant that billions of pounds has left the country in dividends, debt has been loaded on some companies while investment in infrastructure has suffered.

With the major economic powerhouses, US, EU, China, starting programmes of heavy investment, and changing the rules on state aid, the UK risks being left behind if we don’t at the very least question whether continuing with this economic model is the way to a better future.

Aidan Trimble
AT
Aidan Trimble
10 months ago

Dreadful attempt at a hatchet job from an obviously biased ‘writer’. Houchen still commands huge support from swathes of Teessiders, which is why Labour drones are doing all they can to discredit him.

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
10 months ago

Dreadful attempt at a hatchet job from an obviously biased ‘writer’. Houchen still commands huge support from swathes of Teessiders, which is why Labour drones are doing all they can to discredit him.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
10 months ago

Levelling up was meaningless. All that could be done was to take money from the successful part of the economy and give to the weakest. End result would be more decline as the successful see their efforts being taken away and stop bothering..

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
10 months ago

Levelling up was meaningless. All that could be done was to take money from the successful part of the economy and give to the weakest. End result would be more decline as the successful see their efforts being taken away and stop bothering..

William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago

The mistake that people make is thinking the government actually cares and will follow through to make the project a success. Strong local mayors who are accountable to local voters and have control of their own revenue stream have to assume responsibility. Unfortunately, democratic structures in Britain offer no help as they often hinder, rather than help this process. Until this democratic deficit is corrected very little will improve.
The UK government could help with road and rail infrastructure investments but doesn’t; instead sinking huge sums into the essentially useless HS2 project.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago

The mistake that people make is thinking the government actually cares and will follow through to make the project a success. Strong local mayors who are accountable to local voters and have control of their own revenue stream have to assume responsibility. Unfortunately, democratic structures in Britain offer no help as they often hinder, rather than help this process. Until this democratic deficit is corrected very little will improve.
The UK government could help with road and rail infrastructure investments but doesn’t; instead sinking huge sums into the essentially useless HS2 project.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

I would so love the ghastly lower middle class Tory MPs to endure a pub outing in this part of England where so many great, tough, noble Coldstream Guardsmen whom I was so priveliged to know, come from and face them after a few pints……and just wait for the ambulances to turn up and port the politicians to the nearest casualty department… actually no, that is unfair…. to the furthest possible casualty department.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

“Nulli Secundus!”

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

“Nulli Secundus!”

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

I would so love the ghastly lower middle class Tory MPs to endure a pub outing in this part of England where so many great, tough, noble Coldstream Guardsmen whom I was so priveliged to know, come from and face them after a few pints……and just wait for the ambulances to turn up and port the politicians to the nearest casualty department… actually no, that is unfair…. to the furthest possible casualty department.