There are very few occasions on which any political policy is all bad and produces no positive outcomes. Believing in absolutes is where reasoned judgement stops and where fanatical faith begins and we’ve had all too much evidence in recent times of what dangers that can bring.
So when campaigning against Brexit I tried to listen to the arguments of those who favoured leaving and always accepted that there were quite a few problems with the way the EU functioned and plenty of room for improvement. Indeed I thought that when it came to farm policy and to regional policy leaving the EU might actually be a positive. I was, however, firmly convinced that the damage to our economy would outweigh any gains and that damage would steadily accumulate after we lost easy access to our biggest market.
Theory clashes with practice
How wrong I was. Even when it came to farming policy and to regional policy leaving the EU has proved a massive mistake.
Instead of helping our farmers to produce more locally whilst protecting wildlife what has happened since Brexit has been a confusion of contradictory policies which see cheap mass-produced food allowed into Britain from the countries that have signed new trade deals whilst local farmers are seeing subsidies reduced, badly thought out and ineptly implemented.
Yet the increasingly clear failures in farming policy are beginning to be dwarfed by the scale of the misjudgements when it comes to regional policy.
Under the EU much of the money that was paid to Brussels came straight back again in the form of regional subsidies with areas like Sheffield, Bradford and Hull receiving hefty sums for infrastructure projects and for retraining. The money tended to arrive in very clumsy ways and a great deal of it was consumed in the bureaucracy of bidding, contracting and monitoring. Delivery wasn’t always as impressive as the good intentions that lay behind it.
Instead of improving on that performance the Conservatives have managed to design a regional policy that is even worse. It is inspired by same thinking that led Liz Truss to believe that getting rid of regulations and rushing for growth will produce an economic miracle. Anyone with a mortgage now knows how much pain that obsession has inflicted on the nation. Now the same flawed theory is being foisted on the regions with equally dreadful results.
Teesside freeport: opaque dealing and ecocide
In Teesside one of the first consequences was that the environment got trashed. Weak, lightly regulated supervision of a clean up operation on former industrial areas resulted in the developers simply dumping the polluted material out at sea. Shortly afterwards sea life began to die across a massive stretch of the North Sea. The livelihoods of several fishing communities were completely ruined and the local tourist industry was damaged. A strange way to achieve economic and environmental improvement.
Now equally horrendous problems are starting to be discovered in the way the finances of the scheme have been managed. The public is estimated to have spent £400mn on cleaning up the freeport site in Teesside so that it was ready for development. Once this expensive exercise was completed the land was estimated to be worth £100mn. It was sold off for only £96.79. The paperwork on how and why that deal was done is now shrouded in secrecy.
So is the explanation for why private developers were allowed to profit handsomely from that sale of valuable scrap metal from the site. The value of that scrap isn’t a small amount. It is estimated to run into many millions. All that money seems to have been simply signed over to a developer who is close to the mayor without public scrutiny of the process. The public is being expected to accept bland assurances that everything is above board whilst key documents are kept firmly out of sight.
Public money needs public scrutiny
When it comes to administering public money local officials are supposed to be utterly transparent in their dealings and to ensure that best value is obtained for the public on all occasions. That does not appear to be happening on Teesside.
What has taken places during the careless rush to create this freeport is not bad luck. It is bad design. The consequence of deliberate choices. When the government chooses to remove many of the standard financial controls over the way public money is spent it should not come as any great surprise when that money is spent badly. As we learned during the pandemic.
Cosy deals behind closed doors that are not open to public scrutiny aren’t the ideal way to develop a neglected region. They are wide open to abuse. The books must be opened and we must have the chance to find out where our money has gone and why. Then we need a complete overhaul of regional development policy to ensure that what happens is carefully designed, properly funded and genuinely does deliver sustainable development for all in the regions. The future prosperity of our regions is too important to be put at risk by shady deals and daft political theories.