Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen writes for The Northern Echo.

THIS year is beginning with scarcely disguised disappointment in some quarters that, despite inevitable challenges, Covid doomsday predictions have not come to pass.

The government’s resistance to Labour’s automated lockdown calls is to be applauded.

But in these often dark and challenging times no-one should think of resting on their laurels.

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Boris must make it his New Year’s resolution to redouble and refocus the government’s work to level up the United Kingdom and bring new jobs and new hope to places like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. This is the true cause of this government.

The Westminster political bubble isn’t known for its long attention span, especially when it comes to the needs of the North.

London’s entrenched political class, which rarely looks beyond London’s north circular road let alone as far north as the Tees, is trying to distract the Prime Minister from the cause of Levelling up.

When election day next comes, people in Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool will appreciate that the government has had some real successes, especially in its truly world-leading vaccination and booster programmes.

But they’ll be looking forward – and looking for proof that they were right to back Boris and this government to deliver a better life for them and their families. Most people in Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool, like me, voted for Brexit, and want to be proven right on that, too.

The British public gave this government a firm mandate to get Brexit done so that it could deliver levelling up across the country, restore pride to towns neglected by Whitehall, and turbo-charge jobs and opportunities.

This is what Boris still can and should deliver to prove his backers were right. Brexit is delivered and Boris has begun the levelling up journey.

The Northern Echo: level up

Now levelling up needs a step change. The millions of pounds already made available from the Towns Fund for places like Thornaby and Middlesbrough should only be the very start.

Brexit freed us to pursue a dynamic vaccination programme that got lifesaving jabs into our arms. Now the government needs to flex its new-found independent muscles to deliver in other areas as well.

Making a success of the UK’s freeports is going to be a big next step for the whole country, and for somewhere with the challenges Teesside faces, our freeport is an opportunity too big to let slip.

I’m determined that we grasp it with both hands. Teesside Freeport was the UK’s first in operation. Already it’s securing private investments yielding huge numbers of jobs for local people. These are not jobs promised in a distant tomorrow – these jobs are being created right now.

Teesside was the Infant Hercules that built the world and powered the Industrial Revolution. Now we are poised to be a pioneering green industrial centre of global importance, and our freeport is crucial to making that happen.

People in Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool are realists - they know that levelling up is not something that will be delivered in just a year or two, that it will be a decades-long project. But they need – and deserve - to see progress with their own eyes.

That means steel going up to deliver new factories like GE’s blade factory at Teesworks, and spades in the ground for new energy and decarbonisation projects like BP’s two major hydrogen facilities.

The government’s compelling levelling up pledges haven’t been forgotten by those of us who backed Boris in 2019. People are looking expectantly to the government to ramp-up delivery of the Treasury Campus in Darlington, which offers the prospect of Civil Service careers without needing to leave the communities they call home.

We’re waiting to see whether the government will deliver a hydrogen village in Redcar that will help us achieve our potential to be a global leader in hydrogen technology, with the cleaner, safer and healthier jobs that will bring.

The government needs to back not only the transformation I’m driving forward at Darlington Station but new transport infrastructure in places like Hartlepool which need to be better connected to get the most from the opportunities Brexit gives us.

Boris will be held to account on delivering such visible progress. Some infrastructure projects absolutely require direct government backing to make them a reality - as in the case of the 1km South Bank quay now under construction. Another great example is the Tees Crossing.

Bringing this plan to life is a critical part of the freeport infrastructure jigsaw and is essential to make sure the world’s first net zero chemicals cluster secures the international investment that will keep it on the world stage, as well as ensuring local people have an effective road network. I’m banging on every door I can to press the case for the Tees Crossing.

As Tees Valley Mayor, I’m working day and night to deliver on local priorities. From investment at Middlesbrough Station, now welcoming its first regular LNER service to London for many years, to the Teesworks Skills Academy which is ensuring that local workers are equipped to make the most of freeport investments, to my backing of essential regional infrastructure like Teesside International Airport, my focus is on jobs, investment, and securing the best possible future for Teessiders.

It’s time for the Prime Minister to sharpen his focus on what got him elected two years ago and what the British people need to see. Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool will keep faith with Boris if he keeps faith with them.

He’s got booster jabs in British arms – now he needs to make sure we get the Brexit boost we need: jobs, investment, growth, levelling up, and a better future for the place we live in and its fantastic people.

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