Six months of Ben Houchen: the outlook in Tees Valley

The mayor has already raised the political profile of Tees Valley, but should take steps to improve public transport and develop Middlesbrough’s city centre

To many observers, it came as a surprise when Tees Valley succeeded in securing a devolution deal and mayoralty ahead of bigger places, prompting Centre for Cities to bill the city region as the ‘dark horse of devolution’. However, an even bigger surprise came with the election results in May, when Conservative candidate Ben Houchen defeated the favourite Sue Jeffrey (Labour) by just 0.5 per cent of the vote.

This Conservative victory in a Labour stronghold suggested that Theresa May’s government was set to sweep the board in June’s general election, by making serious inroads into Labour’s traditional areas of support across the north. In the end, of course, the Conservative hopes raised by Houchen’s victory went unfulfilled at the polls. But after six months, has the Mayor himself been more successful in building on the promise of his triumph? Here we assess the progress made by the Mayor, and the opportunities and challenges he faces.

Progress

Houchen’s election commitments were distinctive among other candidates both within the Tees Valley and the other city regions. They included a pledge to take control of the local airport (which was surprising from a Conservative) and to open a commission into the local police force. Neither of these pledges has so far come into being, but in a message to mark his first 100 Days, Houchen said that progress was being made on both – including announcements on new investment and routes for the airport.

The mayor has also had a notable presence on the national political stage, aided in part by his significance as a Conservative city leader in the north. For example, he joined his northern mayoral counterparts Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram in negotiations with the Chancellor about the Northern Powerhouse. He also hosted the Prime Minister Theresa May in August, who came to Tees Valley to launch the South Tees Development Corporation. This will be the first mayoral development corporation outside of London, and more progress should be evident on this next year, with a masterplan due to set out how initial interest from investors might make the best use of the land. The site includes the former Redcar SSI works, where around 3,000 jobs were lost when the steel works closed down two years ago. As such, there is a strong political and economic imperative to transform the site, and Houchen’s progress in doing so should earn him considerable political capital in the city region.

Other concrete activity which has taken place thanks to the mayor’s influence includes the introduction of a £6m pilot with the Department for Work Pensions, Routes to work. It will target people over the age of 30 facing significant barriers to getting into work, such as long-term unemployment, or physical and mental problems. This funding at the local level should allow support to be tailored to individuals across a range of local services. Mayor Houchen has also persuaded the Teesside Pension Fund to invest £200m in projects to support economic growth in the city region.

Challenges and opportunities

Progress has been slower on local public transport issues in the Tees Valley. In part, this reflects the fact that the a number of larger transport projects were specified in the text of the devolution deal. So far, Houchen’s transport announcements have largely focused on getting to work on these and other road development to deal with bottlenecks, which is an appropriate priority in the short term.

Longer term, however, the mayor also needs to ensure that improving and expanding the bus network across Tees Valley is a top priority. As can be seen in our Metro Mayor data dashboard, this is a key issue in a city region where bus journeys have fallen by 20 per cent since 2010, much faster than the national average. Budget cuts have also seen bus subsidies withdrawn by every local authority except one in the city region. Nonetheless, buses are the most used form of public transport in the region and should be the priority for the metro mayor and combined authority above other forms of transport.

And while Houchen isn’t taking over control of a city-region transport body, as other mayors have (such as TfGM in Greater Manchester, TfWM in the West Midlands or Merseytravel in Liverpool), the Bus Services Act does offer the mayor considerable scope to either put in place directly or encourage a more integrated, efficient and affordable bus service across the city region.

Another key challenge – and opportunity for the mayor to have an impact – will be making more of Middlesbrough’s city centre. This is the densest area of economic activity in the city region, but is underperforming thanks to the dispersed nature of the local economy, driven by both economic history and policy which has favoured out-of-town business development. Mayor Houchen has pledged to support every town centre in the city region, but as our briefing on the economic geography of Tees Valley made clear, focusing efforts and investment in Middlesbrough city centre will have the greatest impact in attracting the high-knowledge, high-wage jobs that the city region needs. It will also be key in retaining and attracting high-skilled workers and graduates to the city region.

Prioritising Middlesbrough will be difficult politically, but if done alongside efforts to improve transport links across the city region, will help to create more opportunities for people living everywhere in Tees Valley. On the other hand, spreading investment across each local authority will be politically safe but would dilute the benefits that a strong Middlesbrough city centre would bring in terms of providing long term and sustainable economic development.

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