Local elections 2023: on the ground in creative Middlesbrough, where a dysfunctional council divides opinion

Ethan Shone reports from Middlesbrough on the eve of the local elections, where one of the mayoral candidates has been on holiday for the final few weeks of the campaign

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Middlesbrough has its difficulties.  As one resident puts it, the town “comes near the top of all the league tables you don’t want to be near the top of”. It has a high crime rate compared with the rest of the region, one of the largest proportions of children in care, and some of the poorest wards in the country.

But Middlesbrough, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. It is not content to be written off as another grey, struggling post-industrial town. In the last decade or so a thriving creative scene has emerged, generally receiving strong support from the council and benefitting from proximity to institutions like the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), Teesside University and the Northern School of Art. Working with the council, the Middlesbrough Creative Partnership secured over £5m last year from the government’s Cultural Development Fund, which is being put to use toward the goal of making Middlesbrough “the most creative town in the country”.

Platform A Gallery, which is accessed from the town’s train station platform, provides studio space for a dozen artists, plus a gallery space which regularly hosts local, national and international exhibitions. The space has expanded steadily over time and has plans to continue doing so, with a print workshop next on the agenda. Down the road is an even larger creative space, The Auxiliary, which is in the process of refurbishing the large warehouse it originally leased but now owns.

The proprietors of both spaces say they’ve had good support from the council, which has helped them to access funding provided by bodies like Arts England, and occasionally chipped in with direct financial support. There are other galleries and creative spaces in the town, largely situated in the north of the town centre, where the council has also created a development zone, Boho, which hosts a number of businesses operating in the digital sector, including video game developer Double Eleven and software company Big Bite.

The Boho zone has been a central part of the council’s regeneration plans, and has attracted a fair amount of criticism, as well as praise. The latest addition to the zone is Boho X, a 60,000 sq ft Grade A office space set to feature a gym, café, rooftop bar, event space and a lecture theatre. The project is nearing completion, with handover expected in the coming months, but a much smaller structure erected nearby - a makeshift shack where a homeless person has taken up residence - has come to embody a common criticism of the development; that the council and the mayor in particular are more concerned with big, showy investment projects than the bread and butter of running a local authority.

As voters head to the polls in Middlesbrough today (4 May) they will cast ballots not just for councillors from their area to represent them on the council, but also for a directly elected mayor to lead the authority. The last time they voted, in 2019, Labour lost control of the council for the first time in its history as it fell into no overall control, and high-profile Teesside businessman Andy Preston - who is running again as incumbent - won the mayoralty as an independent by a significant margin, having narrowly lost out to Labour in 2015.

‘A painful and ongoing process’

Earlier this year, the council voted through a budget - despite abstentions from the Labour group - which will see cuts to frontline services worth around £12 million. Every other street light will be shut off overnight, the road maintenance budget has been halved and youth services will be stripped back, despite a growing issue in parts of the town with anti-social behaviour driven by young people. Meanwhile, residents will see their council tax bills increase by 4%.

There is agreement that significant cuts are necessary due to the reduced settlement from central government and longstanding issues with a number of services, most notably children’s services, which has an overspend of around £9 million. Earlier this year - following an explosive report from auditors which found widespread governance and spending issues -  the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities issued the council with a Best Value Notice, a notification that if things don’t improve rapidly, government may have to intervene and could eventually take over the running of the council.

In the wake of this, Labour figures and some independents called for Preston to resign, attributing dysfunction within the council to his abrasive leadership style. But the mayor has rejected these calls, casting himself as a bold reformer struggling against an institution resistant to change, saying that, “sorting out mismanagement and moral corruption of Middlesbrough politics is a painful and ongoing process”.

Labour sources feel relatively confident they’ll retake the council, and say their focus if they do will be on a “back to basics” approach, using capital spending to invest in measures which will help reduce day-to-day expenditure on services without having to make the same level of cuts. There are particular concerns about the use of agency staff in social care, and the costs associated with this, with Labour councillor and mayoral hopeful Chris Cooke saying it would be his ambition to look at setting up an in-house care service which would provide better value for money and service.

The mayoral election is considered to be somewhat more finely balanced. Preston is described by some as divisive, with one councillor even likening his “populist style” to that of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but like both men he clearly has his supporters. Though elected as an independent, he has forged close ties with the Conservative combined authority mayor Ben Houchen, and a number of Conservative councillors. By contrast, Labour sources say he ruled out working with them just days into his election in 2019.

In what many have taken as an indicator of how seriously they’re taking the contest, the Conservative mayoral candidate has spent the last few weeks of the campaign overseas on holiday. He will return on polling day, and has admitted to local press that he has little chance of winning. Another independent candidate, Jon Rathmell, has attracted controversy over misogynistic comments he made to the Conservative deputy mayor, but believes he still has a chance of unseating Preston and beating Labour to the post.

The 2019 general election was a ‘one-off’

Much like its refusal to live up to the stereotype associated with many post-industrial ‘red-wall’ towns, the political situation in Middlesbrough does not fit neatly into a clear-cut national narrative.

A council with no overall control, and an independent mayor whose critics accuse him of being an “honorary Tory”, the town maintains one of very few Labour MPs in the region.

Andy McDonald has represented his hometown in Westminster since 2012, having held shadow cabinet positions under both Jeremy Corbyn’s and Keir Starmer’s leadership. When he first came to parliament all his constituency neighbours were Labour colleagues. In 2017, despite Labour improving their vote share, the party lost Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, but Labour MPs remained in Redcar, Middlesbrough, Stockton North and Stockton South, as well as in Sedgefield and Darlington, only slighter further afield.

But with the 2019 election, and the Hartlepool by-election which followed in 2021, a blue Conservative tide washed over the region, reaching inland as far as Bishop Auckland, leaving McDonald and his Stockton North neighbour Alex Cunningham as the two remaining Labour MPs in the region.

While most of the commentariat believe the 2019 election result to be the start of a fundamental and likely longlasting shift in the political landscape, a Middlesbrough man who runs a charity in the town and doesn’t want to be named says he believes the whole region will return to Labour over the next couple of elections. He says the 2019 vote was a “one-off,” with people only voting Conservative due to Brexit.

Though not particularly a fan of Keir Starmer, he nevertheless predicts: “Now that’s done with, and now people have seen what the Conservatives are like, it’ll soon go back to Labour.”