Battered Towns in England’s North Test Johnson’s Plan to ‘Level Up’
REDCAR, England — Standing 180 foot tall, the coal bunker that dominated the skyline at the defunct steel works in northeast England was weathered, discolored and an eyesore to some who lived nearby. Yet it was such a symbol of the region’s industrial heritage that campaigners fought hard to stop its demolition.
They never had a chance. The tower was in the way of an economic development project, and last month controlled explosions reduced to it a few crumpled remains on a landscape littered with relics of rust belt Britain.
The demolition was part of an effort to convert the 4,500-acre site into a “freeport,” or low tax zone, that will build wind turbine blades and focus on clean energy and advanced manufacturing.
Redcar is more than just a town in transition, though. It is part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s far-reaching plan to spread the good life beyond prosperous southeastern England to neglected parts in the middle and North of the country — a policy he never defined but has called “leveling up.”
The concept has since become a central pillar of Mr. Johnson’s agenda, one he believes will shape his legacy as Britain’s leader. He considers it so important that last month he gave one of his ablest ministers, Michael Gove, the job of transforming a vague series of aspirations into a strategy — one that can improve the lives of working-class Northern voters who helped the Conservative Party gain a landslide election victory two years ago.
The issue is likely to be front and center at the party’s annual conference, which begins Sunday in Manchester.
It is places like Redcar, a North Sea town of about 38,000, where Mr. Johnson’s ambitions will be put to the test. Like many other towns in the North, it has been battered by deindustrialization, and thousands of jobs were lost when the steel complex closed in 2015.
On one of his first days in the job, Mr. Gove headed to Redcar to visit the nascent freeport project at the steelworks site, known as Teesworks, telling reporters afterward: “All you need to do in order to understand ‘leveling up’ is to come here.”
Walking his dog close to the steelworks where he was employed in the 1970s, Stephen Bradbury, 73, expressed little regret over the demolition of the tower, a silo-like structure that held 5,000 tons of coal.
“Good riddance,” he said, recalling his time as an electrician at the complex. “The area suffered when it was closed down, but you have to move on.”
Still, Mr. Bradbury was not wholly convinced that Mr. Johnson’s pet project would revitalize the area. “You will never level up the North and the South,” he said.
Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley and an influential member of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party, said that leveling up would take years. He compared the economic disparity between the North and the South of England to the divide in East and West Germany after the country was united.
But Mr. Houchen, a leading architect of the development program, said leveling up was the government’s “No. 1 policy” and what Mr. Johnson would be judged upon.
“Ultimately, a government that wants to govern for the whole country has to do something about that if it wants to win the next election,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to do something very dramatic to be able to move the dial, and something like Teesworks does that: 20,000 jobs over the next 12 years.”
Still, some analysts believe that there are so many complex and interlocking problems in neglected parts of the country that “leveling up” risks misfiring. And while the lack of specificity allows the government to avoid alienating anyone for now, it will eventually catch up to them.
“Politically if you don’t define it, then leveling up appeals to everybody,” said Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Center for Cities, a research institute. “If you define it, you start to exclude people and start to annoy people.” “We shouldn’t solely be focused on bring in more jobs — though if we can, then great — we should be focused on life expectancy, health outcomes and skills,” he said.
To make a success of these kinds of projects, known as regeneration in Britain, there must not only be companies willing to hire but also workers with the right skills and qualifications — and a transportation network able to get them to work.
As the crow flies, it is less than 10 miles from Redcar to Hartlepool, another town that suffered badly from deindustrialization, but with no bridge to connect them, the journey takes 45 minutes by car. It takes even longer by train.
So any surge in job creation at the new site in Redcar is unlikely to help Ian Jennings. After a spell of unemployment, Mr. Jennings, 49, has a job in a factory in Hartlepool and would like to trade up to something better. .
Unemployment in Hartlepool is around 8 percent, well above the national average of about 5 percent.
Hartlepool is also slated to get a “freeport” in the area of its docks, though there are no details yet about what will happen there.
“There are a lot of promises being made and one government is as bad as the next,” Mr. Jennings said, “but I can’t see a lot of things happening in my lifetime.”
Poor diet and ill health have also taken a toll on life expectancy in Hartlepool. Outside the Wharton Trust, a charity, there is a line of around 50 people for free food toward the end of its shelf life that a Tesco supermarket has donated.
Sacha Bedding, chief executive of the trust, warns of a short-term crisis, with rising prices for heating and food combining with the end of a bigger welfare payment that was provided during the pandemic.
“The scale of where we are in left-behind places is massive,” he said, citing lagging educational achievement. Searching for a silver lining, he added: “At least people are talking about ‘leveling up,’ even if nobody fully understands what it is.”
The leveling-up project should, he added, “be our Marshall Plan for the decade if it is to be meaningful; it’s about reconstruction on a scale which we have probably never done in peacetime.” The worry was that instead of producing a 10-year plan and empowering communities with cash, the government tended to chase headlines and “shoot from the hip,” he said.
In Redcar, Rachel Woodings of Coatham House, a charity that supports young homeless people, said that many residents were close to eviction or were sofa-surfing, simply staying where they could overnight with friends.
“Young people don’t have the same opportunities,” she said. “It’s a lack of jobs. It’s probably a skill set that’s missing too. It’s the same problems going around and around.”
It’s not just the young who are struggling. Sharon Nicolson, 54, who is unemployed, said she had sometimes applied for 30 jobs in a week.
“You can’t survive on £60 a week when I have to pay for electricity, feed myself, clothe myself — it’s ridiculous,” she said, referring to her welfare payments.
Back near the derelict steelworks, John Nelson, 66, described how those who grew up nearby almost inevitably ended up taking the plentiful jobs that were once available.
“My dad worked here, so when I left school it was destined that I would work at British Steel,” he said, referring to the company that at one point operated the massive plant.
But eventually he chose an alternate route, leaving to set up his own business; none of his children went to work there. Mr. Nelson said he welcomed the demolition of the old industrial buildings.
“I know some people see beauty in them, but most of the people who are going on about it never worked there or had anything to do with it,” he said of those who campaigned in vain to save the tower.
“You need to move on and earn a living,” he said.