I spend a fair bit of time on the road and a lot of time speaking to people in different bits of the country for focus groups. Talking to normal people about their lives and how politics impinges on them is a pretty good way to pay the (rocketing) bills.
When I’m staying away with work, another thing I like to do – which is related, of course – is go to normal pubs and talk to their normal regulars about similar issues.
The other day, I did just that while I was staying over in Middlesbrough. As well as making a terrible contribution to attempts to get the pub fire alight – I wrongly advised that taking the wrapper off the log might be a good idea – I had a truly fascinating conversation about leveling up.
In the spirit of transparency, it’s worth noting that like all pub conversations remembered in the days that follow, this might be slightly exaggerated. But also, like many great pub chats, I think it still inadvertently landed on some kind of truth.
The conversation, which included a revolving cast of local characters, quite quickly came around to local politics and the policies loosely bunched together by the government as “levelling up”. Given that this was Middlesbrough, the heart of the so-called Red Wall, this should not have come as a surprise.
Now, I happen to know Teesside quite well – I’ve spent a lot of time there for personal and professional reasons – but even so, the tone of the conversation surprised me.
Firstly, was the optimism on display – it was palpable. There was genuine excitement about the prospects of the town and the wider region. My new friends contrasted the past with the present. Decades of industrial shrinkage were being reversed they told me, and perhaps even more importantly, both government and investors alike were taking Teesside seriously. As one pub-goer put it: “People used to say we were a dump, that we had nothing going for us. Now look at us!”
The thing that you get from talking to normal people about leveling up – and the issues around it such as civic pride – is the importance of local morale. For all the policy interventions and focus on outcomes, making people feel like their place is going places and that it is valued, it is really bloody important.
There was one other truly striking thing about the chat in the ‘Boro boozer – that the locals could all discuss, by name, two local politicians: Ben Houchen, the directly elected mayor of Tees Valley, and Andy Preston, the directly elected mayor of Middlesbrough. Both of whom – as they pointed out – were actually born and raised in the area and both of whom they credited with changing the fortunes of Teesside.
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At this risk of sounding trite, this is how local devolution – as conceived by Labor and Conservatives alike – was supposed to work. It was supposed to give birth to a generation of home-grown leaders, locally accountable, showing real local leadership. Local solutions for local problems. That’s what my new friends definitely felt like they were seeing.
Tangible results – in the form of better jobs being taken by local people, an education system that is flourishing and an economy that is growing – will, of course, be the proof in the leveling up and devolution pudding.
But for a place like Teesside that for so long felt like its importance was in a death spiral, to suddenly feel that being reversed– to feel like people want to hear what you’ve got to say – is incredible.
Another local put it perfectly: “The shops and the bars in the town center are still shut, but there’s a buzz about the place that wasn’t there two or three years ago. And that’s amazing.”
Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First