Levelling up Britain: Blyth’s hopes rest on Tory promises of a new dawn
On a cold, grey day in Blyth, as intermittent rain catches shoppers and the wind swirls off the North Sea to blow umbrellas inside out, it isn’t hard to see why the town on the Northumberland coast has felt unloved in recent years.
“It looks really desperate,” says Ian Levy, the first Tory MP to represent the town in almost a century, as he strides across the empty marketplace. The market is off today, and it is a quiet afternoon belying the political earthquake here in December, when Blyth Valley became Labour’s first “red wall” seat to crumble at the election.
Flanked by several graffiti-strewn shops with shutters drawn, Levy says the state of the town centre was among top reasons voters ditched political loyalties going back generations to put a Tory in power. Brexit (Blyth voted 60.5% for Leave) and lost trust in Labour were the others, with Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopular leadership the final straw after years of waning support.
“I’ve lived in and around Blyth all my life and I’ve seen the area just going down and down and down. People want to move with the times, really, and they feel that Blyth’s been kept behind,” said Levy.
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Expectations for change are high. At next week’s budget the challenge for Levy and the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will be to show that a vote for the Tories delivers higher living standards in this traditionally working-class community. People here want to know Boris Johnson’s talk of “levelling up” Britain’s lopsided economy is more than just talk.
Davy Orr, 36, runs a barber shop-cum-social centre in the town. Bald and tattooed, he looks nothing like a typical Tory voter, but is friendly with Levy and backed him at the election. “We need investment massively. You need somewhere for the people, somewhere for the kids to go. We live in a rural town, so where do the kids go?
“The proof will be in the pudding. A lot of people will say he [Johnson] promised a lot of things. But it’s about delivering.”
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Less than 15 miles from Newcastle but a good hour away by public transport, Blyth might seem left behind but has plenty more going for it than the empty market square might suggest. The docks – once a major coal port for pits across Northumberland – now host a world-beating renewable energy industry and research catapult, which grew up around the UK’s first offshore windfarm. The Port of Blyth wants to become a freeport under Tory plans to help expand further. There are cutting-edge industrial companies and vegan entrepreneurs, plus community spirit in spades.
Brian Palmer is chief executive and owner of Tharsus, a Blyth engineering business that makes robots for Ocado, started as a metal-bashing firm in 1964 by four Tyneside sheet metalworkers who won the football pools. “I know Ian, he’s very keen to support business in his patch. I think that’s positive. But clearly we need to see what’s delivered.”
He’s concerned about Brexit, local education and access to skilled workers, as well as the terrible transport links. All need addressing at the budget: “A town like Blyth isn’t a major industrial centre but there’s a population that needs to be economically mobile, and we need to be able to bring people into the town in order to grow business here.”
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As a newfound poster child for blue-collar Toryism, Blyth has been promised plenty even before Sunak stands up to deliver the budget on Wednesday. About £35m has been allocated from the government’s flagship “future high streets” and “stronger towns” funds – pots of money designed to revitalise struggling town centres.
Investment in transport is another massive local priority. About £1.5m has been allocated to finance plans to reopen the Ashington to Blyth rail line, but much more is needed to bring back passenger services axed in the Beeching cuts half a century ago. Considered vital in one of the biggest towns in Britain without a railway station, the plan has been promised for years with limited progress.
For Levy, ending austerity is another priority, even though it was his party in charge of the cuts from Westminster over the past decade. “You gotta balance the books to make things work. I think these cuts had to be made. But it’s not saying that they’re long-term cuts, they’re not going to not be reinstated,” he said.
What is austerity?
Austerity is how governments across Europe – from the UK to Greece – tried to clear the overdrafts, or deficits, they racked up in the wake of the great financial crisis.
Their strategy was two-fold. First, cut spending on the public sector, on wages, for instance, or on social security. Second, raise revenue through higher taxes and selling state assets. Greece, for instance, has sold its airports in Corfu and Santorini, among others, to a German company.
Proponents made a variety of arguments for this strategy. It was said that governments had spent too much money, that everyone needed to tighten their belts. The UK’s then-chancellor, George Osborne, claimed that the public sector was “crowding out” the private sector, taking resources and workers away from businesses. Particularly influential was a paper by two US-based economists, Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, arguing that once a country’s total public borrowing rose above 90% of its national income, or GDP, growth would slow sharply.
Critics argued that austerity would stop economies recovering from the shock of the banking meltdown and would make teachers and nurses and people with disabilities pay for the excesses of bankers and chief executives. In his book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, political economist Mark Blyth showed that austerity had been tried before in the 20th century – everywhere from Weimar Germany to 1930s America – and failed, often with politically disastrous consequences.
Just how badly Blyth suffered is disputed by Tory-led Northumberland county council, which is responsible for the predominantly rural county, as well as the former mining towns at its south-eastern Tyneside border.
“Hang on, hang on,” says Peter Jackson, the council leader, when challenged on the impact of his party’s cuts on the local authority budget. “It’s the narrative I hear all the time. What they don’t say is councils have been able to retain other money. The reality is the overall funding position has increased.”
Central government grants have been cut, but the council has been able to keep money from business rates. Yet accounts show Northumberland spent around £23m less in 2019 than it did in 2010, while the population has increased and aged, putting more pressure on public services. If 2010 spending had simply risen with inflation it would have been more than £200m higher today. Jackson said Labour mismanaged the local authority before the Tories took charge in 2017, and has been punished accordingly at the ballot box.
Susan Dungworth, Levy’s defeated Labour rival, disagrees: “We’ve controlled the council for around four years out of the last 15, and we’d not been in government for nine years at the time of the election.”
“If we’re talking about levelling up, are we talking about levelling up back to before we were playing the austerity game?
“People can’t get hospital appointments. Our transport system is absolutely falling to pieces, for a lot of villages there is no bus to get them to a train. They’ll probably only bring us back to nearly where we were before we started cutting,” said Dungworth.
Like many of the constituencies that turned from red to blue at the election, Blyth was once central to the coal industry. Decades on from the last pit closure, as many as 7.8% of working-age adults claim incapacity benefits across the old Northumberland coalfield, almost double the rate of southern England.
Straight after the election, Boris Johnson rushed to Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former constituency, to thank voters in the north-east for lending him support, saying he would repay their trust.
For Levy, the job will be to keep pressure on Johnson to keep his promises, with the hope that a town with a Tory MP gets more support from a Tory government than a Labour one.
“I haven’t got the funding yet. I’m not gonna give up until I get it, and I’ll keep plugging away. There’s a lot of expectation on us to get it right,” he said.
Election result The Conservatives won Blyth Valley, with a 10.2% swing from Labour
Pay Average remuneration is £22,480 (90% of the UK average, Dec 2019)*
Average house price £151,880 (for Northumberland local authority area; UK average £233,000)**
GDP per head 101% of EU average***
Unemployment Current rate at 6.1%, with percentage of workless households at 19.4% (The UK average is 14.5%)
* Annual survey of hours and earnings, ONS
*** Data for Northumberland and Tyne and Wear area compared with Eurostat data
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