This article explores the potential of employing the concept of ‘cultural inertia’ to explain why areas are slow fully to recover from a period of industrial restructuring in polycentric urban regions. Cultural inertia produces and reproduces tolerances and intolerances to change. It is shown that taken-for-granted assumptions about what constrains progress in achieving recovery (in comparison with other areas) may actually be false. This article draws on a study of social and economic change in Tees Valley, a sub-region of North East England. It reports on 28 two-hour interviews and three focus groups with key stakeholders. It is concluded that catalytic change could come about in industrial restructuring areas, but only if stakeholders build on strengths. The danger lies in polycentric areas’ attempts to emulate metropolitan areas because of a fundamental lack of belief in existing strengths which can be exploited.