Instead of devolving resources to Darlington, Whitehall has chosen to devolve itself
Her Majesty’s Treasury is opening a “northern campus” — an effort to get long-term economic decision-making out of London.
As expected, the location has been confirmed as Darlington, on the banks of Tees. The choice is significant for several reasons. First of all, it’s in the North East (just about) — but also a stone’s throw from North Yorkshire. In fact, it’s just across the river from the Chancellor’s own constituency of Richmond. Teesside International Airport is close by, which commuting civil servants and visiting ministers will find convenient. Darlington is also handy for Barnard Castle — the well-known beauty spot and eye-testing centre.
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Most importantly, Darlington is a town and not one of the north’s major cities. It’s selection over the likes of Leeds is a signal that the Government’s ambition to level-up Britain beyond the South East is not limited to the major urban centres.
We’ve had about 30 years of tarting-up city centres — and, while that’s welcome and necessary — it’s not enough. Also, it’s not that hard. Chuck in some regen money, open a new museum and relocate some public sector jobs and you’re bound to get some response — at the very least you’ll set-off a local building boom.
However, looking beyond the urban cores and university campuses, it clear that we can’t sustain a wider economy on lottery funds and the student pound. Rather we must unleash and invest in the productive energies of a part of the world that once literally made the modern age.
The Tees Valley is an especially interesting proving ground. Though it contains no cities, it is a compact area with a population of around 700,000 and a long-history of industrial innovation. It suffered badly as result of our national decision not to resist the worst effects of globalisation, but the potential for revival is clearly there.
Politically, it’s an integral part of the Red Wall — i.e. the 50 seats across Wales, the Midlands and the North that switched from Labour to Conservative at the last election. As luck would have it, one of those constituencies was Darlington, as was surrounding constituency of Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat). Then there’s the fact, that in 2017, the Tees Valley Combined Authority chose a Conservative, Ben Houchen, as its first directly elected mayor. This was an early sign of the political earthquake to come.
So locating Treasury North in Darlington can be seen as a little thank you. However, it’s also something of an insult. Instead of devolving decision-making power and resources directly to local communities across the North of England, the Treasury has chosen to devolve itself.
It is to be hoped that the new campus and its 750 civil servants will act in support of local initiative, not instead of it. If, however, Whitehall is turning up to take charge directly then Treasury North will look like less a campus and more like a colonial outpost.