Debates between Simon Clarke and Alex Cunningham during the 2019 Parliament

Levelling-up Agenda: Tees Valley

Debate between Simon Clarke and Alex Cunningham
Wednesday 25th November 2020

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is great news, but that is jam tomorrow. We definitely need jam today.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)
- Hansard - -

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.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Again, we get jam tomorrow. It is all about jam tomorrow—something that is going to happen in three or five years’ time.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
- Hansard - -

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?”.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

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.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, midnight

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

That is exactly what is happening today.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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 North East England chamber of commerce policy director, Jonathan Walker, got it exactly right when he said:

“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.

--- Later in debate ---
Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 4:50 p.m.

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—

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 4:51 p.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 4:51 p.m.

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 1 January. Freeports are one of the best examples of how we can drive growth and jobs. [Interruption.] Some of my colleagues are having to self-isolate, but if Members look at the electoral geography of Teesside, they may notice that it has changed.

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Simon Clarke and Alex Cunningham
Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

Our engagement with councils has enabled us to understand pressures at a national and local level across England. To date, we have announced £4.3 billion-worth of additional resource to councils, including £3.7 billion of unring-fenced funding. We have also announced the sales fees and charges co-payment scheme to compensate for irrecoverable income loss that is designed to flex according to the extent of the losses as they crystallise. We will also extend the period over which councils must manage shortfalls in local tax income relating to this financial year from one year to three years. All those measures are intended to prevent councils from having to make difficult in-year decisions. I reiterate the message that I have now sent out countless times to individual authorities: any authority facing an unmanageable situation should make contact with my officials.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the role of local authorities in helping to prevent local outbreaks of covid-19. [904957]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

20 Jul 2020, 2:57 p.m.

My Department has been working closely with the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a framework for the local management of further outbreaks of coronavirus, and councils will play a crucial role in this process. All upper-tier local authorities have published their local outbreak control plans. I am in regular contact with my counterparts at DHSC. We gave new powers to councils to control local outbreaks of covid-19 that came into effect only this Saturday.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Jul 2020, 2:57 p.m.

Eighteen of 55 patients who tested positive for coronavirus were transferred from North Tees University Hospital into local care homes between 1 March and 15 April. That was directly in line with the Government advice that a negative test was not required before discharge. A further 266 were transferred without a test. The policy changed on 16 April, but does the Minister accept that many deaths on Teesside, and perhaps thousands across the country, could have been prevented if the Government had got it right in the first place?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

20 Jul 2020, 2:58 p.m.

I pay enormous tribute to the care workers on Teesside and of course to our local NHS, which we share as Teesside MPs. This has been a constantly evolving and very complex situation, as Governments around the world, including our own, have obviously learned as matters have progressed. We have acted consistently and in good faith throughout. We have worked very hard with the care sector to protect patients. The £600 million infection control fund that we have instigated is designed to ensure that the care sector is safe, with a strong measure of containment against the disease for patients going forward.