Earlier this month, the budget was unveiled – and Chancellor Rishi Sunak detailed plans to move the Treasury northwards (or c. 400 members of the Treasury, a quarter of the whole department). It’s all – as many will be aware – part of a wider ‘levelling-up’ agenda and if all goes to plan, by 2030, 22,000 civil servants will be out of the big smoke presenting a host of opportunities up north.
Last year, the possibility that York would resume its role as a centre for political power was entertained. At first, it was just the House of Lords, and then both the House of Lords and the House of Commons were being talked about (even if temporarily, while the Palace of Westminster underwent its major £4 billion redevelopment). The flame of an idea was ultimately put out – but it whet northers’ appetites for more. The north – as many will know – has a lot to boast about; while London is strongly weighted as the economic capital of the UK, the north, with its sprawling green spaces, grand country manors and cultural towns, has much to recommend itself.
But what does all this mean? In time, the plan is that power will be better spread across the UK. Not only is the Treasury moving north, but Rishi emphasised in a recent briefing that ‘it’s not just some outpost that we don’t care about, it’s going to be an integral part of how we do business going forwards.’ And it’s not just the treasury – it will be an all-singing, all-dancing economic campus (with an additional c. 350 civil servants from other departments relocating). ‘So we’re going to have colleagues from the Department of Business, Department of Trade and the Department of Local Government, as well; so all the big economic departments are going to be there. We’re [the Treasury] obviously going to be there, and I’m going to spend a large chunk of my time there, so people realise it’s not just some outpost that we don’t care about.’
The choice of the town of Darlington in County Durham may have come as a shock over the arguably more bustling cities of Leeds, York or Newcastle. Darlington, part of the Tees Valley, is a place that has suffered at the hands of both deindustrialisation and austerity over the past half century – so this boost is exactly what the place needs. ‘My gosh, people were buzzing, people were absolutely buzzing,’ Rishi explained after spending the day in Darlington shortly after the announcement was made. Other reports described the general mood in Darlington as being one of sheer ‘surprise’ – bafflement and delight – that they had landed the appointment.
Somebody who was not surprised, however, was Lord Barnard, the owner of Raby Castle and a former High Sheriff of County Durham. Raby Castle is a sprawling, crenulated fortification built by the 3rd Baron Neville de Raby between 1367 and 1390; it is surrounded by 200 acres of oscillating parkland where fallow deer run wild. On a phone call, I put the Chancellor’s Treasury North announcement to him. ‘I think it will be a transformational decision for the area, a tremendous boost, not only for the town but for the whole of the Tees Valley and the wider area.’ As for the ‘surprised’ element, Lord Barnard says: ‘I wasn’t surprised, it’s a bold decision but it just seems like the right decision, the right location, it seemed the natural choice.’
Lord Barnard believes that Darlington has a lot of ‘real, inherent strengths’ that made it right for the role of Treasury North – he puts it down to what he calls the ‘three Cs’. Those being communication (by train, London is but two and a half hours away, Edinburgh less than that and Durham, York and Newcastle, mere minutes); countryside, ‘the North Yorkshire Moors, the Yorkshire Dales, the North Pennines, are all on our doorstep’; and finally, culture.
Indeed, there is a lot to be enthusiastic about culturally-speaking in Darlington. ‘It’s a Quaker history with influential Quaker families such as the Peases and the Backhouses – some of whom are still living in the area.’ Then, beyond the town, in Barnard Castle there’s the Bowes Museum (a spectacular Versailles-esque museum dubbed ‘the V&A of the north’), millionaire philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer’s remarkable Auckland Project and, not forgetting, Raby Castle of course.
Raby Estates themselves are investing in their visitor offer with recently approved planning permission. ‘We’ve a new café planned, an adventure play area and the walled gardens are being remodelled. There are a number of historic buildings such as the old riding school and the coach houses having new life breathed into them. It’s about sharing the history and landscape and making Raby more accessible to local people and visitors alike.’ So it’s all go, go, go at Raby – and the timing couldn’t be better, with work set to start later this year.
County Durham – and Darlington – has a lot to offer the fresh influx of civil servants. Certainly, housing will be vastly more affordable. Dreams of relocating to an Edwardian villa in Harrogate (double the size of a London dwelling) may become a reality (just an hour’s commute) or an adorable cottage in Middleham, beneath Richard III’s castle ruins, and where there are famously ‘more horses than people’ with multiple racing yards hidden beyond the town square. Then there’s desirable Northallerton – where the Chancellor resides in his constituency of Richmond – and charming Bedale. Civil servants who have dreamed of weekends or longer, lighter evenings roaming the countryside or even owning a horse, could make this a reality.
Levelling-up is of course, most importantly, about the redistribution of power across the UK, but Londoners moving north may find that they get a lot more than they bargained for (in multiple respects).
For more information about Raby Castle visit raby.co.uk
Subscribe now to get 3 issues of Tatler for just £1, plus free home delivery and free instant access to the digital editions
More from Tatler