Ben Houchen: This is the moment for liberalisation in the North East, and here’s how to go about it

The North East of England has the most to gain from liberalisation of the economy, but it is also the area where the case for the market is hardest to make. New opportunities, stemming from Brexit and innovative technological developments, could open the intellectual market to us.

It would be nice to think that the voters who elected me and my Teesside Conservative colleagues, like Simon Clarke MP, are all enthusiastic free-marketeers, calling out to be freed from the economic and social constraints of the big state, but I fear that that isn’t necessarily the case. I have no doubt that some feel this way, but on the most part I feel that people support my party out of a pragmatic wish to see government finances managed properly, responsible stewardship of the economy, and the desire to embed sustainability and long-termism into our policy approach.

In the North East, more than anywhere else in the country, big-state socialism is entrenched in the political system. I know first-hand that this can be challenged successfully, but if we are to start changing hearts and minds, we need to demonstrate why our way is better than the old way.

The towns that make up the North of England, including those in my native Teesside, were built in an era of enterprise, when the state was unrecognisably small by today’s standards. With the growth of industry, the workers of Teesside, who were building the world, quite rightly wanted a better deal, and by educating themselves and taking the initiative, they organised and got one.

The movement that delivered workers’ rights in the early twentieth century transitioned neatly to the central planning and bureaucracy of the post-war years. Ironically, the collapse of nationalised industries further entrenched socialism as the way, the truth, and the light in the North.

Today, ‘Tory’ is still a ‘no-no’ word in some communities in the North, but we have a real opportunity to change this. Employment rates are high here, good jobs and training are available, and, unlike other parts of the country, home ownership is a realistic option for young people. This situation provides no automatic advantage for the free-market case, but with the North doing better than it has done in years, it provides a platform on which we can build.

The North voted overwhelmingly for Brexit — the single largest opportunity to improve Britain’s standing as a free trading, globally open, confident nation for generations. While not everyone is able to appreciate the benefits Brexit will bring, it is obvious to reasonable people that the areas most in need of economic development — the Northern regions — have the most to gain from it.

To make the most of this on Teesside, I am proposing that Tees Port and the South Tees Development Corporation site become a Free Port. This couldn’t be achieved in any meaningful way while still manacled to the bureaucracies of Brussels and bound by one-size-fits-all state aid rules. This would be the largest and clearest signal possible that the UK, and in particular the North, is open for business, and that we view Brexit as an opportunity, not a threat.

As a millennial, albeit an older millennial, internet-enabled technology has pretty much always been a fact of life for me. Waiting in line may have been fine for our grandparents, but for the Just Eat generation this just doesn’t cut it. This presents a great opportunity to make the case to younger people in traditionally Labour areas that they should expect the same experience from public services as they do from the consumer sector, and that only one party is making the case for this.

In the coming weeks, I will launch a call to businesses in the Tees Valley region and beyond, asking for new ways of solving societal problems. They will be encouraged to find solutions to issues ranging from urban congestion, to rural public transport, skills, and elder loneliness.

Offering a different outlook, on both economic policy and domestic problem solving, will only help us expand the appeal of liberal free-market ideas if communicated properly. This means pointing out the benefits of increasing individual freedom, in the context of the lives or people who have no time for wonkish political theories.

The North East is under threat, not just from 1970s-style crypto-Marxists like Jeremy Corbyn, but from the same old Labour politicians who only understand how to stay in power, not how to make things better. If they are allowed to carry on without really changing anything, the North-South divide will continue to grow. To change this, we need strong regional voices, making the case for the market and how it can help us stand on our own two feet, rather than waiting for the scraps from the South’s table.

Ben Houchen, Mayor of the Tees Valley

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