This May, parties will face their first electoral test since the Covid-19 pandemic, and voters will decide who has the most compelling vision of Britain’s ‘new normal’. This will be a vision that needs to deliver for villages, towns and cities across the country, while addressing underlying changes to living and working structures.

We are following five battles across the UK, each of which will have significant implications for development and infrastructure plans locally and nationally.

The battlegrounds we are focusing on are the West Midlands Mayoral, the Tees Valley Mayoral, Northumberland Council, West of England Mayoral, and Thurrock Council. These elections provide an excellent platform to examine the influence and cut-through of the government’s levelling-up agenda, writ large in the commitment to ‘build back better’ through extensive infrastructure development.

About the Tees Valley Combined Authority

The upcoming Tees Valley Combined Authority Mayoral Election will be the second of its kind after the inaugural 2017 vote. The Mayor heads the Combined Authority, made up of Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough and Stockton councils.  

The incumbent, Ben Houchen, was elected in 2017 in what was at the time a shock win for the Conservatives, defeating the Labour candidate 51% to 49%, after including second preference votes in the Labour stronghold of North East EnglandIt is now clear that this was one of the first bricks to fall from Labour’s ‘Red Wall, as would become evident in the 2019 general election.  

Houchen’s election pitch in 2017 was notably different to the Conservative’s wider offering; he pledged to nationalise Teesside airport and increase the number of flights. He delivered on his promises, and now appears as a model for how Conservatives can deliver on their pledge to level-up parts of the country that have started supporting them in recent elections.  

It remains to be seen whether his only challenger, Labour’s Jessie Joe Jacobs, will be able to buck the apparent trend and unseat him. 

Levelling Up Tees Valley 

Teeside is indeed the darling of the Conservative ‘levelling up’ policy. Darlington in Tees Valley was chosen by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as the home of ‘Treasury North’, while Teesside was chosen as one of the eight Freeports announced earlier this year. Furthermore, the government pledged £95 million in funding to support Teesside and the Humber in the burgeoning North Sea offshore wind industry.  

Critics say that the allocation of this support hasn’t been entirely just, as it was recently revealed that the Freeport bid from the Tyneside scored higher than Tees Valley, but the Chancellor decided the region’s Freeport should go to Tees Valley due to its “stronger alignment with government policy”.  

However, polling suggests that Freeports are not a great concern to local people in comparison with the closure of Redcar’s steel plant in 2015 still in recent memory. The current polling reflects the near unprecedented level of investment in local infrastructure and traditional industry which Houchen has presided over. In a late-April poll, the incumbent had a 26-point lead in the polls, a reflection of the seismic political shift caused by Brexit.    

Wider Picture 

While the outcome of the May 6th election might seem like a foregone conclusion, the result will still be a window into the electoral success of Johnson and Sunak’s levelling up agenda. If the Conservatives find that they achieve greater electoral success in this race than in similar races across the former Labour ‘Red Wall’ stronghold, they can be sure it was in part down to the investment funnelled into the region.  

The Tees Valley election could be the race that helps to decide the future of the government’s levelling up campaign. Unprecedented success may see the rollout of similar schemes in traditionally Labour-voting areas across the country which have seen a lack of funding in recent decades and have experienced the loss of industry and jobs as a result. Anything less, and questions may be asked as to whether it is time to rethink the government’s strategy; this race may define our national post-Covid recovery.