SPEAKING to the nation from Hartlepool Waterfront after the historic Conservative election victory last May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his Government would "deliver" for the town and the rest of the country. 

Stood under a giant 30ft inflatable of himself, Mr Johnson said the Hartlepool victory was “a mandate for us to continue to deliver, not just for the people of Hartlepool and the fantastic people of the North East, but for the whole of the country.

“If there is a lesson out of this whole election campaign across the whole of the UK is that the public want us to get on with focusing on their needs and their priorities, coming through the pandemic and making sure we build back better.”

Hartlepool's MP Jill Mortimer was first elected last May, delivering a hammer blow to Labour's 'red wall'. The Conservatives took the seat – which had been Labour-held since it was formed in 1974 – with a majority of 6,940. 

The Northern Echo: Boris Johnson and Hartlepool MP last May. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTBoris Johnson and Hartlepool MP last May. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

But nearly two years after launching its flagship levelling up policy it is still unclear how the Government plans to transform the dozens of communities in dire need of investment. 

Read more: Billingham locals say town is suffering' due to lack of funding

The Northern Echo is visiting various towns and communities around the North East that were rejected funding from the government's Levelling Up Fund last year to speak to locals to find out how their area can be improved. 

From the coastal town's historic Headland community there are stunning sea views past the marina and further down the North East coast to the factories of Teesside. 

But the once thriving steel town and industrial port was recently named the 10th most deprived town in England. Its unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country.

The town - unlike nearby Billingham - has benefited from £25m of Government Towns Fund money – as well as Hartlepool Borough Council and Tees Valley Combined Authority investment.

Locals have spoken of a "Ben Houchen" effect in the area, likening the Tees Valley Mayor to Santa Claus because of his ability to receive big money for big local projects.  

And when it was encouraged by its new MP Jill Mortimer last Summer, Hartlepool Borough Council submitted a £20m bid to the Government’s Levelling Up Fund in the hope of benefiting from a Boris bounce. 

Yet the bid was rejected and the council's redevelopment plans were put on hold (it plans to resubmit a bid later this year).  

Read more: Government Levelling Up policy still unclear without white paper

It focused on three projects forming part of the ongoing regeneration of Hartlepool: To deliver enhanced carbon saving measures to make Highlight – Hartlepool’s new leisure centre – more energy efficient and sustainable; Refurbishment and expansion of the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool; and a new cycling and pedestrian bridge to better link Hartlepool Waterfront, the town centre and the railway station.

The Northern Echo: The current Mill House Leisure Centre will be replaced by a new facility. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTThe current Mill House Leisure Centre will be replaced by a new facility. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

A new leisure centre has been a long time coming for the town and the new site – which will replace the town’s existing Mill House Leisure Centre – is set to feature a range of facilities, including three swimming pools and a multi-station fitness suite.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool and the nearby HMS Trincomalee have been hit with multiple closures and and restrictions during the Covid pandemic and it is hoped funding will breathe new life into the site, first opened in 1994. 

After the council's bid was rebuked independent councillor Shane Moore, the authority's leader, questioned the flagship levelling up policy. 

Read more: Levelling Up has to be kept alive amid all the chaos of the Johnson government

The Northern Echo:

Cllr Moore said: “The Government has pledged to address inequality and 'level up', so I’m hugely disappointed much more affluent areas like Yarm and Eaglescliffe have been awarded funding.

“It’s also worth highlighting that we were encouraged to apply at this stage and not wait for the second round of applications as was our original intention.

“One of the central themes of the Levelling Up Fund criteria was around town centre regeneration and our bid was closely aligned to this.

“I will now be writing to Government to understand why Hartlepool – a Borough with high deprivation levels – has been overlooked for Levelling Up funding and why other areas have been deemed more deserving.

“We will refine our bid once we have received Government feedback and resubmit in spring 2022.”

At Hartlepool Waterfront, where the new leisure centre will be built, resident Edith Ward says despite the popular Middleton Grange shopping centre the town centre lacks investment. 

"The town centre needs a refurb and there's so many empty shops," she said.

"I think, why go there when there is nothing to go there for. We have not got a department store - one place you can go and get everything you need."

Instead, Ms Ward walks to and around the Waterfront area every day due to locality of the various cafes and restaurants and its "stunning scenery". 

The 83-year-old, who grew up in Easington and later lived in Billingham, says she has seen her fair share of shop closures and empty high streets in her time. 

"When I moved to Billingham it was a brand new town centre. There were coaches of people who would travel from the pit communities just to visit. 

"Now, it's been decimated."

It is this experience which has also led her to call out the Government for a lack of investment in the region. 

Ms Ward added: "I think the North have been left behind. The Government never think about up here, it's like we don't exist."

Read more: North East councils spend thousands on consultants for levelling up cash 

However, one worker who travels to the town for work praised the availability of stores in the centre.

The shopping centre is filled with national retail and food chains with few empty units in sight. One empty shop has smartly been repurposed into a Covid testing site ran by Hartlepool Council. 

"I am not from here but I think Hartlepool is great - it's got everything you need," she said. 

Another worker chips in to say: "What it needs is more investment on the seafront area at Seaton Carew".

The Northern Echo:

Down towards the marina area of town, one business owner says the number of empty shops are "the same as any town" but called for the various derelict old buildings near the railway station to be improved. 

Yet despite the council's ambition to transform the town its failed bid received criticism from town's Conservative MP Jill Mortimer

Mrs Mortimer claimed Hartlepool Borough Council “cobbled together” an application and that she “wasn’t surprised” it was unsuccessful.

But Cllr Moore issued a stinging response by saying Mrs Mortimer had forced the council's application through ahead of time. 

He said: “Our intention was always to submit a bid in the second round of applications in spring 2022 and this was the timescale we were working towards.

“However, when Mrs Mortimer was elected MP she requested we submit a bid in the initial phase, so we had to fast-track our bid development work.

“But to say our bid was ‘cobbled together’ or in the ‘too hard tray’ is unfair, disrespectful and untrue – particularly when we were responding to her request."

The Northern Echo: Councillor Shane MooreCouncillor Shane Moore

In response, the Tory MP told The Northern Echo: "The bids submitted for the Levelling Up Fund are assessed objectively and impartially by civil servants according to certain criteria.

"Unfortunately, the bid made by Hartlepool Borough Council did not score highly enough against those criteria to be successful.

"However, I have arranged for officers from Hartlepool Borough Council to meet with ministerial staff from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities so that the Council will be able to submit a stronger bid in the future."

However, Edith Ward isn't resting her laurels on the prime minister delivering the much needed investment the North East.

"I didn't vote for Boris, that's for sure. I am not a Conservative and I don't like him - he is a down right liar. He's embarrassing and he just flounders around."

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