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Hartlepool to Hollywood? Hardly

My town just won Levelling Up money - but it'll go into building a "TV Production Village," even as hungry kids trudge to school in subzero temperatures. This isn't levelling up. This is Tory theatrics. 

January 26 2023, 13.26pm

As I was getting the kids ready to leave for school on Thursday morning I heard that Hartlepool had been successful in the latest round of so-called ‘levelling up’ funding. £16.5 million pounds for the creation of a Film and TV ‘Production Village’ in the centre of Hartlepool. Part of the latest efforts to kick-start a Creative Quarter anchored by the Northern Studios, a former council bus depot, pitched as the only large-scale studio facility in the North East of England. 

Although I’m a councillor myself and obviously interested in seeing funding come to our town, the best I could do was shrug at the news and roll my eyes at a Conservative comparing Hartlepool to Hollywood. My brain then switched back to real life. On the way to school, I noticed the temperature in the car was -2 Celsius. The journey passes pupils from many different schools and I wondered how some of them started their day. Were they warm enough? Did they get an adequate breakfast? Is their coat keeping the chill out while they walk?

Like many areas in the north, Hartlepool has taken its share of pain from 13 years of Tory cuts. Hartlepool Borough Council lost £45m pounds of government funding between 2010 and 2020 alone. Just recently, myself and fellow councillors in Hartlepool have been debating where the latest cuts should be aimed, just ahead of the inevitable council tax rise to be decided this week. The cuts, on this occasion, are not as bad as we originally feared, but bad enough.

Previous cost-cutting measures have seen the council’s workforce reduced by 20%, the raising of rents for allotment owners, security scrapped in our parks, increases in parking charges and the introduction of a charge for blue badge users. This year, the introduction of charges for the emptying of garden rubbish is likely to be waved through at the next council meeting.

Putting aside the perverse beauty contest that local authorities have to go through to win this ‘levelling up’ funding a TV production village does not make up for the loss of funding that Hartlepool Borough Council has received from central government since the dawn of austerity in 2010. An earlier failed bid for funding was marred by a spat between the leader of the Tory dominated council and the local Tory MP who called the bid ‘cobbled together’. 

To be clear, any and all investment is welcome. In a town with high unemployment and a lack of opportunities, anything that improves the life chances of our residents, especially our young people are appreciated. However, inequalities across the town are plain to see. Latest figures show that in Hartlepool, up to 39% of children are living in poverty. In the ward I represent, Victoria, that figure is higher than 50%. Men who live in Victoria can expect to live on average seven years less than those in the more affluent West Park area of town. Poor housing perpetuated by absentee rogue landlords blight the area. Violent crime and anti-social behaviour is on the increase. Some residents tell me there is ‘no point’ ringing the police because they never do anything. Hardly surprising when you consider we have a part-time police station, a handful of officers and often just one PCSO on duty to serve a town of around 91,000 people. And, of course, the NHS here is also being driven into the ground, with funding now at half what it was at the peak of the last Labour Government. 

Huge increases in energy bills means people cannot afford to heat their homes. ‘Warm hubs’ have sprung up in cafes, church halls and community centres because people can no longer keep warm at home. Add to that the food banks that proliferate across the town, and exchanges supplying free school uniforms and clothes for those that struggle to afford them. Once again, the community spirit shines through in Hartlepool, but surely a disgrace that these things need to exist in Britain in 2023. 

The Tories have cut the funding to schools and colleges in real terms every single year, and won’t return to 2010 levels until after 2025. That’s 15 years of cuts that affect the education of our children in our town. Against this backdrop, the Prime Minister’s announcement of the winning bid at our Northern College of Art verges on the grotesque. The college will not even benefit directly from this funding, although it will be at the centre of a regeneration area, that involves knocking down buildings creating new public square.

A TV production village is not levelling up. Real levelling up is about investing in people. Real levelling up is ensuring that children have the best start in life, with good healthcare and a rounded, inspired and inspiring education. Real levelling up is ensuring our communities are safe places to live. Real levelling up is good quality housing. Real levelling up is good, sustainable jobs. Unfortunately, like with most of the Levelling Up project, this latest grant is mostly for show. More a Potemkin village than Hollywood.