Jonathan Liddle, a fishmonger in the northeast English town of Darlington, is getting used to seeing Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. A few weeks ago, he even managed to get a selfie: “I said to him: ‘What are you doing here again?’”
Darlington made history in the 19th century as a pioneer of the railways in a region where mining, steelmaking and shipbuilding once helped drive the economy before heading into decline. It has now emerged as the lynchpin of the UK government’s flagship “levelling up” project to boost prosperity in poorer districts after leaving the European Union.
The town is home to the government’s new Economic Campus, an outpost of Sunak’s Treasury that will eventually have 1,100 new roles across different departments by 2025. The idea is to move some civil servants 250 miles (400 kilometers) north from London and also recruit widely from across the region. So far, just over 200 of the new jobs have been filled, with 80% of the Treasury staff hired locally.
The goal is not only to boost the local economy, but change the way decisions are made in government by giving more power to people on the ground, and the political stakes couldn’t be higher. If Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ministers can get it right in Darlington, it bodes well for the prospects of his Conservative Party keeping power at the next election due by 2024.
“We’ve been forgotten about for too long,” said Peter Gibson, who has been the town’s Conservative member of Parliament since 2019, when Johnson swept to victory by winning over swathes of opposition Labour Party heartlands in the north. “It’s about time we damn well got what we deserve, and I believe we’re starting to get it,” Gibson said on May 4 as he walked around the town center, where grand redbrick Victorian-era buildings intermingle with boarded-up shops.
The government’s core mantra, “levelling up” is about everything from creating jobs to improving infrastructure such as transport connectivity and restoring a sense of community, according to a blueprint released in February. It’s particularly focused on the northern regions that voted so heavily for Brexit in the UK’s 2016 referendum—a cry for help as much as a rebellion against the EU.
A key reason for the focus on Darlington, with a population of about 100,000, is that it’s very much a bellwether on both the political and economic fronts—and that makes it what Gibson calls a “poster child for levelling up.”
The town is surrounded by so-called “Red Wall” parliamentary districts that defected to the Conservatives from Labour in the 2019 election, many for the first time in generations. Darlington itself has switched allegiance more frequently, to Labour in 1992 and now back to the Tories. It followed a broader change in the political landscape, most notably with the surprise election of a Conservative mayor for the Tees Valley, which includes Darlington, in 2017.
Economically, it sits on the main east coast railway line 2 hours and 40 minutes from London and at a crossroads between the poorest parts of England and pockets of prosperity. Within a 30-mile radius you have places like Hartlepool and Middlesbrough that have some of the UK’s highest rates of unemployment and the quaint towns and villages of North Yorkshire, which became a magnet for relocations during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s not unreasonable to think politicians wanted to reward the area, bring a high-profile institution to it,” said Craig Berry, a reader in political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University. “It might send a message to other similar places where the Conservatives have been competitive recently that that thing might happen in their areas too.”
Sunak, whose parliamentary district is just down the road, is a regular visitor to Darlington as he confronts the challenge of getting that message to cut through in a place that sits in stark contrast to richer regions in the south.
The town has more people claiming state income aid via Universal Credit with an average 10,526 recipients per 100,000 people between December and February, 25% higher than in London and the South East of England.
The average monthly salary in the Darlington area in the three months through January is 2,299 pounds, 37% lower than the average in London and South East, according to Bloomberg’s UK Leveling Up Scorecard. That gap has gotten worse in the last three years. Annual government spending on transport in the North East region is 543 pounds per person, 52% lower than London and the South East.
Sunak said the Economic Campus shows how seriously the government takes “levelling up” and said it was resonating in the community. He also pointed to an “enormous upgrade” planned for Darlington railway station. “What does it mean to me? It means making sure people wherever they happen to grow up or live in the UK feel like they have fantastic opportunities ahead of them,” Sunak said in an interview with Bloomberg News on May 12.
While Darlington waits for more jobs, the country as a whole is bracing for significant cuts in civil service employment after Johnson vowed on Thursday to slash the overall workforce by a fifth.
Asked if the cuts would affect Darlington, a government spokesperson said: “Government must reflect the people it serves and we are making good progress on our programme to move 22,000 roles outside London by 2030.”
Liddle, the fishmonger who has been trading at Darlington Market since 1970, welcomed the campus, but questioned how long it was all taking. Asked what he made of “levelling up,” he asked: “What does that mean?”
Several business owners were also hazy on the concept and not confident it was going to work, although they welcomed the campus. Other Darlington residents quizzed in the town said they had no idea what it was.
“Levelling up should be about bringing good jobs to every community in Britain, especially those that have lost them, not just moving some civil servants up north,” said Alex Norris, the Labour spokesman tracking the policy.
Economic Campus staff are currently housed in a Department for Education building overlooking the River Skerne and next to a small complex with a chain hotel, cinema and restaurants. They will move to a longer-term, yet still temporary, office a two-minute walk away later this year. The government has pledged to build a permanent home for the campus. The preferred option is currently a large vacant car park across the river.
As well as Sunak’s now regular visits, a Treasury minister is also on site every week, according to Helen Whately, the exchequer secretary to the Treasury appointed by Prime Minister Johnson last year.
“These things take a bit of time for people to see the difference in their daily lives,” she said. “But I’ve found that people are feeling that Darlington is getting more attention. There’s a buzz there, something happening.”
But the key question is whether it turns into a microcosm of the way the country is governed, said Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a lobby group of business and civic leaders chaired by former Conservative chancellor George Osborne.
Osborne announced his new Northern Powerhouse agenda in 2014, which included the introduction of new “metro mayors” and a new transport body, but it happened against a backdrop of austerity when public spending was slashed. Johnson was criticized last year for scrapping part of a new high-speed rail network.
The Economic Campus needs to be part of an ecosystem with the local authorities and city councils in other parts of the north, Murison said. The Treasury’s first call on how to fix a problem in the region should be to “the relevant mayor” rather than another department in London. The Treasury must also widen its supply chain and use lawyers and other professional services closer to Darlington if it’s to be a “genuinely northern initiative,” he said.
In the meantime, there are some signs of impact. Claire Barnes, who runs the Cheese and Wine Shop in the town, said civil servants from the campus had been among new customers at her tasting events. Jayne Saddique, director of Ann Cordey estate agents in Darlington, said there was a new “feeling of confidence in the town” and some people selling their homes suggested she bump up valuations because of the campus.
Darlington also has plans to tap into its history at the forefront of the railways. In its heyday, it was home to the world’s first steam-powered passenger line and built locomotives. It’s now in the mix to become the national headquarters of Great British Railways, a new public body that will oversee rail from next year, said Gibson, the local parliamentarian. A shortlist of places is set to be announced later this month.
Beth Russell, director general of tax and welfare in the Treasury, lived in London for 25 years before moving to Darlington with her husband last October to work at the Economic Campus. They live about 10 miles south of the town in the countryside.
“We are doing jobs right at the center of government at the most senior levels and we’re able to do those from here,” she said. “It really shows you can have a whole civil service career in policy jobs up to the most senior levels in the area.”