DURING the last nine years of Conservative and coalition governments, the impact of national policy on the North-East has been decidedly mixed. There have been beneficial reforms such as devolution, but there have also been disproportionate negative impacts with North-East councils facing unequal cuts to their government grant funding.

Between 2009-10 and 2017-18, the North has seen a £3.6bn cut in public spending, while the South-East and the South-West together saw a £4.7bn rise (in real terms). London also saw a cut in spending, but by far less, at £256m.

So with a new Conservative leader and Prime Minister on the horizon, should the region be optimistic or concerned about the change?

The Conservatives’ flagship devolution reform has largely been successful in the North-East, providing £15m of new funding to the Tees Valley per annum, and £20m of funding for the North of Tyne.

Yet, within the unitary authorities and metropolitan boroughs of the North-East, the austerity policies since 2010 have hit particularly hard. In January 2019, the Centre for Cities think-tank reported: “Despite the high-profile coverage of the struggles of county councils in recent years (most notably Northamptonshire), it is actually cities, and especially those in the north of England, that have been hit hardest by austerity.”

In 2010-11, the first year of the Conservative-LibDem coalition Government, the seven North-East councils had a combined spending power of £1.36bn. In 2018-19 this fell to £816m, a loss of over half a billion pounds. Similarly, the five Tees Valley councils fell from £712m to £544m across the same period.

During his leadership campaign, Mr Johnson has promised to transform the North-East if elected. Mr Johnson, who has the backing of Simon Clarke, Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Conservative MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, stated that he supports plans to improve trade and transport links in the North-East. He is also in favour of granting the Tees Valley ‘freeport’ status to boost the local economy. This scheme also has the support of the Tees Valley Conservative mayor, Ben Houchen, and the Labour MP for Redcar, Anna Turley.

In addition, Mr Johnson has drawn parallels with his time as mayor of London, saying: “I would like to be the Prime Minister who does for connectivity in the West Midlands and the Northern Powerhouse what I did for London, with Crossrail and with massive tube upgrades.”

He has even suggested that transport links for the Northern Powerhouse might take precedence over HS2.

Jeremy Hunt also strongly backs the Northern Powerhouse transport and infrastructure projects, set up by former Chancellor George Osbourne in 2014.

However, despite warm words for the Northern Powerhouse among both men, the reality is that the North is still waiting for investment. In the five years since the Government launched the powerhouse, foreign investment into the region has plummeted, the number of late or cancelled trains has doubled, weekly pay has fallen, and the number of children in poverty has increased by 200,000.

In short, any positives from the devolution funding have largely been wiped away by austerity.

These policies, with cuts to local government support, are continuing into 2019-20, so do Mr Johnson or M Hunt have any plans to alleviate pressures on the North-East?

Former contender Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, promised a clear break from austerity, but was unsuccessful in making it through to the final ballot. The two remaining candidates have made no such pronouncement.

Mr Johnson has indicated a desire to leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal. However, the current Conservative Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has warned, that a no-deal Brexit would deprive Britain of the money needed to end austerity.

And Mr Hunt has been a staunch advocate of austerity politics. In particular, he is remembered for his battle, while Health Secretary, with junior doctors who went on strike protesting a cap on pay increases. However, during his leadership campaign, he has stated that Conservative cuts to social care went “too far” while he was Health Secretary.

The two candidates have both made welcome signals about the continuation of the Northern Powerhouse, with particular reference to transport links and freeport status for the North-East and the Tees Valley, but neither has been drawn on their attitude towards Conservative austerity.

With successive Conservative Prime Ministers having overseen swingeing cuts to local government budgets over the last nine years, the likelihood remains that despite big promises about new railways and one-of-a-kind ports, the average citizen in the North-East will be no better off under a new Conservative leader.

Until a future Prime Minister commits to reversing austerity, the people of the North-East will continue to be poorer and less connected than their neighbours in the South.

l Dr Christopher Massey is a lecturer on the BA (Hons) Politics course at Teesside University and a Labour councillor, and former deputy leader, for Redcar and Cleveland Council