Things can only get better

When Peter Mandelson quits as Hartlepool's MP in November, for his new job as an EU commissioner, he'll leave behind a town that's determined to cast off its grim Northern image, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online

From the top of Christ Church tower in Hartlepool it is possible to see into both the past and the future. You can even get some clue about whether this will be the site of New Labour's next by-election humiliation when the man who was once the pattern of Blairite perfection, Peter Mandelson, quits as the town's MP and heads for a city where the streets are paved with euros.

From the top of Christ Church tower in Hartlepool it is possible to see into both the past and the future. You can even get some clue about whether this will be the site of New Labour's next by-election humiliation when the man who was once the pattern of Blairite perfection, Peter Mandelson, quits as the town's MP and heads for a city where the streets are paved with euros.

To the south lie the flaming chimneys and belching towers of what was once British Steel and ICI stretching in a vast industrial sump of prosperity and pollution amid the flat marshland wastes of Seal Sands, which inspired the director Ridley Scott, who was at art college in Hartlepool, with the vision for the bleak opening scenes of his film Blade Runner. But today only a flickering remnant of the industrial empire that once stretched across Teesside, from Billingham through Middlesbrough to Redcar, is left. It cannot be too many years before it is entirely wiped from the landscape.

That is certainly the case looking north where, on this clear day, we can see as far as Sunderland with no sign of the wheeling colliery towers which would once have dotted the landscape in the days when coal was king. Today the vista is clean and green.

There is the odd survivor of the industrial past, such as the hugebuilding in which the Dutch-owned firm Heerema still builds offshore oil platforms. And in the ancient part of the town, the Headland, where the cartoon of the archetypal northern working man, Andy Capp, originated, the remains of the area's fishing industry clings on in the teeth of ever-increasing pressure from EU regulations.

Looking west is where the real legacy of the decline in shipbuilding, coal, chemicals and steel is to be found. There, to the side of the conservation area of elegant Victorian villas, lie the town's large housing estates whose social statistics read like an index of deprivation.

More than half of the population of Hartlepool lives here, in nine of the most disadvantaged wards in the UK. Here, 30 per cent of those under the age of 25 are unemployed. Teenage pregnancy is double the national average. Some 40 per cent of people smoke, compared with 28 per cent nationally. Male life-expectancy is years lower than in the rest of the UK. Anti-social behaviour and drugs are a problem, so much so that the council is preparing to demolish 100 homes in the most drug-infested streets.

There have been successes. The number of people unemployed for more than six months has been almost halved, as have the number of people claiming benefits, and burglary has been substantially reduced, although it is still twice the national average.

Yet, swivel your head and look more to the east from the great gleaming limestone Christ Church tower, and the view tells a different story. Church Street, the main thoroughfare, which 15 years ago was semi-derelict with one million square feet of vacant floor space, is now a thriving high street of bars, restaurants and shops. Between it and the grey-blue sea, the old docks have been converted into a gleaming marina crowded with small yachts and speedboats. Beyond it, the harbour, even on a weekday, is busy with jet-skis. To the south is Hartlepool's seafront, which goes by the name of Seaton Carew, a spot where once the unemployed would gather sea coal washed ashore from submarine deposits every day, but which is now the home to Ocean, a smart new restaurant where the cooking reaches metropolitan standards.

The leisure and service industries dominate the town centre too. Not far from the base of the Christ Church tower - which is no longer a place of worship but an art gallery - stands a magnificent piece of early Victoriana which was once Hartlepool's great Wesleyan chapel. It is now - the founder of Methodism would be horrified to learn - a nightclub with a pub beneath it. The town's leading rock venue, the Studio, is in a converted Baptist chapel.

Slightly further off stands a glass-gleaming new Mecca bingo hall - the only purpose-built one I've ever seen - which is packed every night of the week, and not only with ladies of a certain age.

By the edge of the marina stands the Historic Quay, a recreation of an 18th-century seaport containing tableaux museums of the period - a "superb visitor attraction offering the sights, smells and sounds of what life was like at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar" - set around the oldest British warship afloat, the HMS Trincomalee, which is as genuinely old (c1817) as its surroundings (c1994) are ersatz. Yet you mock its facsimile character at your peril, much as you do if you offer any slight to the people of the town.

"We're all very proud of this town and what it has achieved," says a middle-aged woman who has appeared suddenly beside us at the top of the tower. "And we want someone as MP who is proud of it too. A local person. Not another New Labour figure parachuted in from London."

It was a view I heard echoed widely in the town. Hartlepool, it seems, has never warmed to Peter Mandelson. There are those who respect him. "We've been well-served by him," says one local government civil servant. "Interventions by him on some key projects helped us make progress. His profile helped the town image-wise, influencing investment patterns. He chaired the Hartlepool Strategic Partnership and gave it a sense of purpose and direction." But the local people seem never to have felt comfortable with the mandarin Machiavelli.

Nor he with them. "Do you think my constituents mind me dressing like this," he once asked a local, after turning up on a speaking platform in a particularly elegant designer suit.

"No, but you want to turn it to your advantage," the local replied.

"How?"

"Ask them: 'Do you like my suit?' And when they say they do, tell them: 'Yes, and it'll be all mine after three more payments to the catalogue'." It was not a gag he borrowed.

Everywhere the locals opined that it was time for a Mr Hartlepool to get the job. (Which might not bode well for the Lib Dems, who have just adopted a woman from Darlington as their candidate). The town's former MEP, David Bowe, has put himself forward but appears to have an inadequate definition of what local means. "He was born in Gateshead and lived in Stockton and thinks he's a local," quips Alan Wright, a big cheese in the town who did the morning show on Radio Cleveland for 30 years. "Round here they think they're international travellers if they were born in Hartlepool and have moved to live in West Hartlepool." The two boroughs merged in 1967, but that is recent history in Hartlepool terms.

Alan Wright himself is mentioned as a potential candidate. So is Ray Mallon, now the mayor of Middlesbrough, but who was the police chief in Hartlepool for many years. Wright and Mallon have both said they are not interested in standing. Not that public denials are binding in politics.

Someone else who says he isn't standing is Stuart Drummond, the man who was the monkey mascot of the town's football club, and stood for mayor for a laugh two years ago - and then got elected. Like most people in the town he is, surprisingly perhaps, proud of the monkey business. Not his cavorting on the pitch before Hartlepool United games, that is, but of the legend that during the Napoleonic Wars when a shipwrecked monkey was washed ashore at Hartlepool the locals hanged it, thinking it was a French spy.

"There's no shame in it," he says, sitting, devoid of monkey suit, in the mayoral office in the large red-bricked civic centre. "It's a funny story and it gives the town an identity." Almost everyone agrees. There are monkey mugs, T-shirts and tea-towels in all the shops. There are monkey figurines for sale at the marina. The local rugby clubs have the monkey on their badges. "A lot of towns would pay a lot of money for such branding," says Mark Jones, the owner-chef at the trendy Ocean restaurant.

The Monkey Mayor is an interesting reflection of Hartlepool's new reality. He has lived there since he was three, apart from his years doing Business and Finance at university, and then working for four years as a waiter on cruise ships. "When I was a kid, Hartlepool was a dump with nothing going for it. But every time I came back from the cruise ships there was something different and improved," he recalls. The football team, which had been a Fourth Division joke when he was a boy, was doing well too: it has only just missed promotion to the First Division. "So I decided to stay till the end of the season. That was when I got the role as H'Angus the Monkey. Part of my job was to get publicity, which is why I decided to stand as mayor." He was gobsmacked when he was elected. He and the other independent between them got 65 per cent of the vote as the electorate gave two fingers to party politics.

"I think the Government have gone cold on the idea of elected mayors since then," he says. But the people of Hartlepool seem not to have. "They were fed up of the same old faces, and the same broken promises. But it seems to be working now. There's been a lot of re-engagement with the community. We've done a lot of things which people wanted - restoring the lifeguard service on the town's beaches, getting another street washer, setting up another bin round. We've set up Operation Clean Sweep in which the highways, housing, job centre, fire, police and probation services move into one area of the town and blitz it for a month. People know who to blame now."

The Monkey Mayor has had his ups and downs, says Alan Wright. "He needed to learn the organisational ropes, but he has, and his crucial advantage is that he knows his town, and its people, inside out." Of his cabinet's 330 decisions so far only one has been called in for scrutiny by the full council.

There's more to it than the local council, of course. Successive government initiatives, both Tory and Labour, have poured millions into the town. In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Hartlepool had one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK, but the trend is being seriously reversed now, and schemes such as the massive £1.9m Belle Vue Community Centre offer a wide range of top-quality social and leisure services in one of the town's grimmest areas. "Initiatives like this are transforming the town," says Jonathan Ward of the Hartlepool Community Network.

The private sector has led the way in the dockside regeneration, with a mix of cafés, pubs and clubs that attract a wide age range from across the North East. Another big refurbishment is under way in the nearby Victoria Harbour.

"The old idea is vanishing that if you don't come home from work at the end of the day dirty and exhausted then it's not a proper job," says Stuart Green of the council's regeneration department.

The old view lingers in places. "There's only so many call centres you can have," one former shipworker told me. But he was wrong. Garlands, the biggest private-sector employer in Hartlepool, with 1,700 jobs in its call centres, has just received planning permission for another which will create 250 more jobs.

But it is in niche markets that the biggest changes are being seen. Mark Jones's Ocean restaurant is seriously upmarket - "and things are going better than we could have dreamt off," he says. The town now has bespoke workshops for stained-glass, glass sculptures, computer-animated videos for new music releases, a medical genetics lab, and a recording studio where artists of the calibre of Jah Wobble come to make albums. The Studio is run by Liz Carter, a local folk-singer who has recently won awards as Social Entrepreneur of the Year and Regional Woman of Achievement. "With all the traditional industries gone, Hartlepool has an unbelievable survival instinct born out of grit, grime and hard graft," she says. "One band, Mercedes, who recorded here have just landed a five-record deal with promotion in the US."

For all the burden of its inherited problems, Hartlepool is an optimistic as well as a proud little town. Its unemployment rate is down to its lowest level for decades. House prices have risen so steeply that Peter Mandelson can expect to make a £200,000 profit when he sells his Victorian villa in the town. Hartlepool was even featured as a tourist destination on the BBC's Holiday programme recently.

A new confidence is about. Things are changing. "I don't think it is necessarily a safe seat for Labour any more," says Mayor Drummond, "particularly if they try to send in some bright young party researcher from London."

Tony Blair cannot say that he has not been warned.

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