Antony Mullen is the Chairman of the Sunderland Conservatives and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition on Sunderland City Council.
The rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle is best understood nowadays in footballing terms, but it has also been traced back to the English Civil War (in which Newcastle supported the Crown while Sunderland sided with Cromwell).
But in the debate about the relocation of CCHQ, there is no conflict: Sunderland is backing Newcastle.
With Number Ten actively in search of a new location which boasts good train links, a nearby university with leading maths and physics departments, and somewhere that is “well placed in political terms”, the Sunderland Conservatives are keen to highlight that our Tyne and Wear neighbour does not simply meet the criteria, but easily exceeds them.
Newcastle’s Central Station is well connected, with direct lines to cities across the country (including frequent and reliable services to both London and Edinburgh). The local Tyne and Wear Metro system operates throughout the city and connects it to the rest of Tyneside, as well as to Gateshead and Sunderland. The metro also runs to Newcastle Airport, which provides a further means of quickly getting from north to south.
On the university front, the city is home to two respected higher education institutions. Newcastle University, a member of the prestigious Russell Group, is a prime example of a truly civic university, engaging the local community in its activities and drawing in huge crowds for its Insights Public Lectures series. Newcastle’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Physics – which is in the UK top 10 for research impact – addresses the (perhaps unusual) requirement that the new Conservative HQ must have nearby maths and physics departments.
In addition, Northumbria University is also located in the heart of the city while Durham University, which is just 20 minutes away by train, also has excellent Physics and Mathematical Sciences departments.
As well as having high-ranking universities and transport connections across the country, Newcastle boasts a rich cultural heritage, outstanding architecture, a famous nightlife, and incredibly friendly people.
Despite this, though, the strongest case for Newcastle relates to the final requirement set out by Number Ten – that the new venue should be “well placed in political terms”.
An office in the centre of Newcastle would bring the party machine closer – geographically and culturally – to our new supporters in Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Bishop Auckland, Redcar, Sedgefield, and Darlington. Moving as far north as Newcastle would show those voters who recently turned to the Conservatives, feeling betrayed by Labour, that we are with them for the long term, not just the parliamentary term.
Indeed, to move the party’s head office to Newcastle would be to park our tanks firmly on Labour’s lawn. Their northern headquarters, Labour Central, is also based in Newcastle. Having ours there too would not only show that we are serious about keeping our new north east seats, but that we intend to take those that Labour just held on to, like Sunderland Central and Wansbeck, at the next election.
If that wasn’t reason enough, a Newcastle-based campaign HQ would have a front-row seat when it comes to other important elections, like fighting to keep control of Northumberland County Council and the Tees Valley mayoralty.
Yet coming to the North East would not simply be an opportunity to enjoy what the region offers, but a chance to recognise what it cannot offer.
My Association was not able to suggest our own city as the new CCHQ location because it fell at the first hurdle. Sunderland is not very well connected to the rest of the country by rail. While there are direct services to York and London, Sunderland’s residents must travel to Newcastle to get trains to other northern cities. To travel from Sunderland to neighbouring Durham by rail isn’t an option: instead, an hour or more on a bus will get you to the centre of Durham, but two or more buses are required to travel elsewhere within the county. This is just a snapshot of how badly the North East, like other part of the north more generally, needs further transport investment.
Moving CCHQ to the North East would not just be a tokenistic gesture, but a commitment that the Conservative Party will live with and share in the problems that so many of us outside London face. Our proposal is both an invitation and a challenge: come and enjoy all that we have to offer – including the rail links and world-leading physics research – but take the opportunity to address what some north east towns and cities sadly lack.
The case for Newcastle is clear: it is close to the seats we must retain to keep our substantial majority at the next election and relocating here would highlight the party’s commitment to our new supporters in the region. Choosing Manchester or Birmingham, which both already enjoy hosting Conservative Party Conference biennially, would be a (predictable) step in the right direction, but choosing Newcastle would be a bolder move still.
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