Senior Conservative politicians responded to criticism of the Levelling Up programme and concerns around the Teesworks development as they launched the party's local election campaign in the North East.

Tory Party chairman and North West Durham MP Richard Holden joined Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and Sedgefield MP Paul Howell at the Teesworks site in Redcar ahead of the elections on May 2.

Reference was made to both issues in the most recent BBC Question Time debate, which was held in Middlesbrough on Thursday (March 21). 

An independent review into Teesworks found no evidence of corruption but did criticise its governance and transparency and made 28 recommendations.

On Question Time, Sarah Jones, Labour Shadow Minister for Industry and Decarbonisation, said the development “smells fishy,” and said her party would ensure Levelling Up is delivered in the North East by bringing stability to the economy, set up a ‘national wealth fund,’ and reform the planning and grid system.

The Northern Echo: Richard Holden, Ben Houchen, Paul Howell

But Mr Houchen said: “The only person I heard complaining about Teesworks was the Labour MP who wanted to talk down the opportunity for jobs and investment – record levels of investment for the most successful freeport in the United Kingdom.

“Let’s see what the report actually said - it said we’re creating 9,000 jobs already contracted, billions of pounds worth of investment, and a £1.3 billion return to the taxpayer.

“If that’s not a good deal, I don’t know what is.”

He criticised the Labour Party for talking down the North East and urged them to get behind the “incredible things happening in our region”.

On Question Time, Ms Jones said: “There is a huge race, a global race, for jobs of the future. We’re behind.

“I think people have been let down for too long, it’s time for a proper plan that brings jobs, brings pride, brings opportunity back to our areas, like Teesside, because people have been missing out for too long.”

Speaking on the issues of poverty, and child poverty, within the North East and in Middlesbrough - which has a child poverty rate of 41 per cent - the Tees Valley Mayor said his party would tackle the issue by creating jobs.

He said this is why the delivering of Levelling Up which will create these jobs is “so essential” for the region.

He said: “You deliver Levelling Up by creating jobs. If you are trying to deal with the symptoms and issues around child poverty and deprivation, the only way of breaking that cycle is through job creation and increasing the prosperity of the region.

“Otherwise, you’re just dealing with the symptoms, what we’re trying to deal with is the cause.”

He said the success of Levelling Up can be judged on employment rates, worker’s wages, and wage rates and added the employment rate in the Tees Valley has risen by 5.4 per cent since he was elected in 2017.

He cited the freeport, Teesworks, SeAH wind, and the treasury in Darlington as examples of Levelling Up succeeding.

“There’s a huge gap to be able to bridge with the rest of the country when you think about the decades and decades of neglect we’ve had in this region, but we’re turning that around,” he added.

Durham County Council agreed in January to seek a judicial review of the government’s Levelling Up funding process after County Durham spent £1.2m on five failed bids. 

Labour members of the council believe the money will not be repaid, and one councillor, Kevin Shaw, said the Government’s decision to leave them in the dark during the second round of bids caused them to waste £1.2 million of residents’ money through no fault of their own.

When asked if this money would have been better spent on fixing potholes in the area, Richard Holden said Durham County Council had already had a successful Levelling Up bid.

He said: “A lot of the planning that goes into a lot of those bids is actually planning work that goes into project delivery across the board.

“Durham County Council got an unexpected £70 million over the next couple of years for transport which hadn’t been part of their projections recently either.

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“I’m hoping that some of that massive amounts of extra cash that they weren’t expecting to get in terms of transport infrastructure and revenue spending, they’ll be able to spend on some of those lovely little projects.”

Mr Howell, MP for Sedgefield, said the majority of bids coming out of County Durham were for transport, and while he was disappointed by the second round of bidding, believes the £70 million given to the council put things right.

He said: “I’m as disappointed as anybody the way the second round went, but this is certainly driving things right in terms of that funding.”

The Northern Echo: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a local elections campaign launch at a bus depot in Heanor, DerbyshirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak during a local elections campaign launch at a bus depot in Heanor, Derbyshire (Image: PA)

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged voters to “send a message to Keir Starmer” as he launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign in Derbyshire.

He said the Labour leader was “arrogantly taking the British people for granted” and “assuming that he can just stroll into Number 10 without saying what he would do”.

Talking up the achievements of Conservative mayors such as Mr Houchen and Andy Street (West Midlands), Mr Sunak attacked the financial record of Labour-run councils, saying: “They tax you more and deliver less.”