The voters in the Tees Valley have re-elected Ben Houchen as their metro mayor, who increased his majority to 72.8 per cent of the vote in the first round, the highest vote share in the eight metro mayor races that took place in May 2021.
The pandemic has hit the economy hard but the Tees Valley’s economic problems precede the pandemic; it had the second lowest productivity of all city regions in the country , reducing its prosperity. With a renewed mandate and high levels of recognition, Ben Houchen must aim for long-term economic growth, which will improve standards of living for Tees Valley’s residents.
To achieve this he should invest in skills for people of all ages, develop Middlesbrough’s centre into the economic engine of Tees Valley, and improve mobility across the region, especially for people without a car. These mayoral priorities will also help people benefiting from the several Government-planned projects for the Tees Valley, like the Treasury’s northern campus and the ‘vaccine library’.
Policy priority 1: Investment in local skills to boost productivity, wages and employment
Even before the pandemic, a lack of employment opportunities and low wages were hindering Tees Valley’s overall prosperity. The city region had the second lowest employment rate (68.6 per cent) of all of them and average weekly earnings are roughly £60 below the national average.
To improve living standards and ‘level up’ the Tees Valley— by having more and better paid jobs for its population— it is necessary to increase productivity by investing in people’s skills. Without the necessary skills, Tees Valley’s residents will not benefit from the recently-announced Government initiatives such as Treasury North as people from elsewhere will move to the city region and take such opportunities.
Tees Valley has a comparatively high number of adults without formal education (12 per cent), so Ben Houchen should continue using the adult education budget to fund level 2 vocational qualifications. Furthermore, he must guarantee future funding for skills-related projects originally provided by the European Union such as the Leading Growth and Management Catalyst, both run by the University of Teesside for local business leaders.
Improving local skills is not only about funding programmes though. Over the next three years, th Ben Houchen must strengthen local institutions and partnerships. To promote a strong adult learning culture, Ben Houchen should establish a ‘skills compact’ with local firms and education providers. This would connect different stakeholders and give the opportunity to share projects and best practices.
Additionally, a local ‘UCAS for apprenticeships’ system should be implemented to connect young people with employment opportunities. The Greater Manchester Apprenticeship and Careers Service and Be-More in Liverpool City Region provide models for this.
Policy priority 2: Develop a thriving city centre economy in Middlesbrough
Central Middlesbrough — like other struggling city centres — is too dependent on retail. The sector occupies almost half of the commercial floorspace available, compared to 26 per cent in the average city centre. Previous Centre for Cities’ research shows that its city centre has a low prevalence of office space and its quality is poorer than in most other cities: with around 18 per cent considered good quality, significantly below the 25.2 per cent observed in the average city centre.
Unlike other cities, the current urban composition prevents Middlesbrough from playing a successful role within the city region, which would attract well-paid jobs, and consequently support the high street. To tackle this issue, the mayor must set a strategy that plans to improve both commercial and residential property in Middlesbrough city centre, which will allow businesses to locate close to workers.
Ben Houchen should continue supporting new city centre office investments like the Centre Square development — which is already 80 per cent let — rather than dispersing developments across the city region. This will require office commercial space conversion, or even demolitions. Such plan will strengthen the Tees Valley economy by promoting job opportunities where they can be widely accessed. Moreover, to make Middlesbrough city centre a thriving area for the overall city region, the mayor should to provide new high-quality housing. By developing brownfield land, the newly-built homes will be near the city centre’s services, allowing people to use greener modes of transport like walking and cycling.
Policy priority 3: Make travel easier without cars
Transport connectivity in Tees Valley is a serious problem, especially for people without cars. Unlike London and large metropolitan areas, the current challenges are not caused by congestion but insufficient public transport services. According to Tees Valley Strategic Transport Strategy, 31 per cent of households do not own a car, bus journeys fell by 13 per cent between 2012/13 and 2017/18 and service satisfaction is also in decline.
Over the next three years, Ben Houchen needs to build a long-term credible strategy where Tees Valley’s residents can benefit from better mobility, at the same time potential congestion problems are anticipated. Only by building a good public transport network, will Ben Houchen guarantee that all of Tees Valley’s residents can benefit from new job opportunities in the city region, regardless if they live in Hartlepool, Darlington or Redcar.
First, Ben Houchen should franchise the buses using powers granted to him in the Bus Services Act 2017. With bus franchising, the mayor can address the main causes of declining ridership and service dissatisfaction by setting fares, routes and frequency. Under the new National Bus Strategy, franchising powers will permit local government to access new funding specifically for bus services.
Second, create a Transport for London-style transport body responsible to the mayor that could set the fares, routes, timetables and deliver a truly integrated system for passengers. Furthermore, the fare-related revenue would give Ben Houchen additional money to spend on new transport initiatives.
Finally, Ben Houchen should continue to support and extend the existing Wheels to Work scheme, which provides rented mopeds, e-bike and bicycles to individuals who are looking for work or commuting. This helps improve urban mobility in the city region for those who lack a car but who may not be able or want to use the bus network.
 Office quality proxied by below average Energy Performance Certificate ratings.